Together, We Can Get Free: A Review of Towards Collective Liberation, by Chris Crass

By Sasha

Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy, by Chris Crass (PM Press 2013), is a challenging collection of essays and interviews. The concept of collective liberation, gleaned initially from radical scholar bell hooks, connotes a struggle lodged deep in the tradition of liberation movements—black liberation, GLBQTTI liberation, women’s liberation, and so on. CC insists, “we need liberation movements of millions of people, from all backgrounds, from all walks of life, with a wide range of experience, playing many different roles… everyone reading this book is needed in the process of building the powerful and successful movements we need to make the changes crucial for our future.” For liberation movements to connect at crucial strategic and ideological intersections, activists must overcome the problem that “processes of inclusions and exclusions are reproduced in our organizing.” For collective movement organization to succeed, we need “a commitment to use different strategies and approaches.” The message ofTowards Collective Liberation is that love, openness, and patient determination will prevail. It is an imperative lesson for everyone.

Chris Crass begins the book with essays steeped in the anarchist tradition: “there has never been a monolithic anarchist theory, tendency, or movement throughout history;” he explains, “there is not one anarchism, but many.”Towards Collective Liberation tells a history of non-hierarchical organizing throughout the world, leading to the modern notions of dual power and prefigurative politics exhibited by CC’s autobiographical discussion of the emergence of the San Francisco Food Not Bombs. The analysis of Food Not Bombs in San Francisco feels forthright and sensitive, mixing anti-oppression theory with a systematic conceptualization of the major problems in Food Not Bombs into an easy-to-digest text with stimulating tastes that travel to the untrammeled recesses of the heart. Perhaps the defining moment of CC’s discussion of prefigurative politics is his proposal to “imagine and create prefigurative organizing practices that work for people of different ages, cultures, capabilities, economic classes, responsibilities, and capacities.” While he does not delve into the more overarching systemic critiques of Food Not Bombs, CC’s detailing of his personal experiences with the difficulties of patriarchy and white supremacy opens space for “new theorizing and practice.”

Reading Towards Collective Liberation is a lesson in patience, accountability, and praxis more than a lesson in Food Not Bombs. “A group can choose to also have anti-racism shape its politics and practice,” says CC, “but that must be a conscious decision with a plan for moving it forward… The point is not to become ‘perfect’ but to become praxis-oriented and understand change as a long-term process.” Chris Crass’s ideation of praxis as a form of adapting decision-making to objectives and experiences within a non-hierarchical framework is superbly explicated through examples of building communities of resistance among other antiauthoritarian causes and organizations. Practical gems, such as the twenty points enumerated by CC to define careful steps towards “anti-sexist action,” make Towards Collective Liberation a book to pass around amongst friends as well as a greater organizing and educational tool. Its simplicity of style, which indicates the diligence of CC’s writing as well as organizing with the Catalyst Project, will benefit radical collectives as much as any work place, with the recognition that liberation anywhere is part of collective liberation everywhere.

The last section of Towards Collective Liberation is comprised of several interviews with anti-oppression activists operating in extraordinarily difficult environments. Several members of the Heads Up collective discuss the founding labors of collective organizing. The Rural Organizing Project in Oregon answers questions on broaching political issues with tact and confidence, while maintaining the radical patience that it takes to communicate with people on their level. The thrust of these interviews leads to a kind of acknowledgment of generalized oppression, and a willingness to transform the social relations by any (non-violent) means necessary. Kentucky-based organization, Fairness, puts forward an incredibly interesting example of equalizing antiracism and anti-homophobia over and against of the problems that activists face of “divide and conquer,” where a person of color’s voice is marginalized in the GLBT movement or visa versa. These interviews provide extraordinarily interesting insights into radical organizing on a personal level, and Chris Crass is to be commended for stepping back and allowing other voices to emerge, making the book an experience in collective liberation.

Though Earth First! is acknowledged several times throughout Towards Collective Liberation, the arc of the book avoids the politics of animal and earth liberation. We do not have stories of the radical ecology movement working towards earth liberation with an antiracist analysis in Towards Collective Liberation. In fact, there is little to no discussion of earth or animal liberation in the book beyond Food Not Bombs—and that discussion “focuses on how San Francisco FNB joined in the local struggle for economic justice and helped build the broader international movement” as well as internal debates within SF FNB.

Towards Collective Liberation keeps non-anthropocentric analysis at the periphery. The question remains: do animal and earth liberation movements belong on the periphery, or should the very problem of our marginalization within collective liberation struggles motivate us towards strengthening our absolute commitment towards the collective liberation of all species. The marginalization of animal and earth liberation movements is not simply a symptom of a Popular Front style of organizing; it is a serious problem within the movements themselves that must be openly discussed in order to ensure that our movements stand unequivocally with other movements for collective liberation.

I caught up with Chris Crass by email, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about non-anthropocentric liberation.

Towards Collective Liberation (of all species): An interview with Chris Crass

“There is no doubt that environmentalists need more training on antioppression, but do you think that earth and animal liberation thought have a place in collective liberation as well?”

Absolutely. Earth and animal liberation both bring critically important insights, visions, strategies and ethics for the world we want to live in, the way we live in harmony with all life, and how we can take steps here and now to get there. Animal liberation was actually really important to my early activism. Going vegetarian was a concrete way I could practice my politics and animal liberation was an important gateway for tens of thousands of young people to come into radical politics.

I moved away from animal liberation as a central part of my politics as I focused more on systemic inequality in capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism. I did that because I found that many with a central focus on animal liberation regularly ignored or trivialized struggles in working class communities and communities of color. Nevertheless, I do think that animal liberation is important in an overall collective liberation vision, and when we talk about a socialist and cooperative economy and society, ethics of animal liberation should be part of that vision.

“What can animal and earth liberation groups do in their own hermetic (protesting HLS, for instance) to gain recognition within the broader CL analysis as more than a marginal opinion-oriented ideology—as part of the general movement for collective liberation?”

I worked closely in the 1990s with many who had a strong animal liberation and earth liberation politics. A significant split happened at the time of the global justice movement following Seattle in 1999. There were those who held an animal and earth liberation politics that largely dismissed and trivialized systemic inequality and struggles in working class communities and communities of color. Then there were many who united animal and earth liberation with a larger vision, analysis and strategy of working for justice for all people, and the need to build broad-based mass movements of everyday people.

Many animal and earth liberation activists who went towards a broader movement orientation to work for collective liberation joined with the environmental justice movement rooted in working class communities and communities of color. There are so many incredible examples of animal and earth liberation activists bringing their experience with direct action organizing into their community organizing efforts. The Ruckus Society that trains hundreds of people in direct action is a great example of this. They went from an almost exclusive focus on direct action-based environmental struggles and expanded into a direct action justice struggles-based group that supports communities of color, Indigenous communities, and working class communities to use creative and courageous direct action tactics. I believe this is what is needed.

We need the militant direct action orientation of the animal and earth liberation movement, but grounded in a larger strategy and practice of community organizing that is working to build up popular people’s power to win and create systemic change. Another good example of the kind of union of earth liberation and liberation for all people politics is Movement Generation. They are a political education and movement building group that is putting forward cutting edge analysis and strategies on how to work for the world we want in the face of ecological and economic crisis. A good resource on this analysis and approach is the booklet “Organizing Cools the Planet: tools and resources to navigate the climate crisis” by Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell.

“What is the difference between revolution and collective liberation, and is a popular front-style mass movement the apparatus of collective liberation (as the cover art seems to suggest)?”

I believe in the need for revolutionary change. I believe that revolution will include periods of mass popular uprising and change, but it also needs to be rooted in everyday struggles to transform conditions and consciousness in all our communities.

I do not believe that there will be a mass insurrection that will change everything. We cannot focus only on demolishing existing institutions of exploitation and oppression and expect that new liberating institutions capable of long lasting self-governance will simply emerge. Many anarchists and socialists have believed and some continue to believe this will happen. But history has shown, over and over again, that this is not the case.

I believe in the power of everyday people’s movements as the primary force for moving our societies towards collective liberation, and revolutionary politics, vision, and strategy are an important part of that. I don’t think that revolution is something that will just happen, and revolution will take care of all our problems. With that thinking we get into ends justifying the means, because if revolution will take care of all our problems, then whatever we do to speed up the process of revolution us justified. A good essay that explores this in more depth, that is really worth studying is “You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism”. If we see revolutionary change as an on-going process, one marked by periods of mass uprising and popular resistance, then the means of working towards liberation are actually helping us create the ends we want. Therefore the values of a liberated society are values we work to live in the here and now.

Yes we need popular mass movements. Yes we need revolutionary politics and strategy to help us win and create collective liberation. Yes, out of everyday people’s struggles, new forms of social organization will emerge. And yes, we need to actively incorporate anti-racist, feminist, queer liberationist, socialist values and politics into our education, organization and institution building, and our work in our families, communities, and lives as part of an on-going process of social and personal revolution.

Reviewer Conclusion: If Towards Collective Liberation challenges people in the movement to face the problems of patriarchy and white supremacy, EF!ers will accept and welcome this challenge, while upping the ante not only by insisting on a safe(r) space to talk about animal liberation and earth, but by actively working on campaigns for economic, food, and environmental justice with our allies. The Earth First! Journal has an antioppression policy, and Earth First! is serious about accountability and antioppression organizing. Towards Collective Liberation will help EF!ers take the next step in working in rural and urban environments, and it is time to move forward with the analysis to help realize collective liberation against anthropocentrism.

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