In Praise of Good Maps: Theory, History, & the Signs of the Times

Except for graying professors encased in ivory towers and card-carrying members of anachronistic socialist sects, nobody really reads Lenin these days. Like wide-legged furry pants, he seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Few will be worried, then, that the turnout at the 100th anniversary bash for Materialism and Empirio-Criticism – a pamphlet Lenin wrote in 1908 to critique the resurgence of idealist thinking among so-called Marxists – was very, very small. Interesting in its own right, the content of the pamphlet is of less concern to us here than the fact that it was written at all. Flipping through its pages today, it’s hard to avoid being struck by the novelty of a writer engaging with abstract philosophical points as though they were of central importance to the movement. Even more novel is the realization that, at the time, the movement itself seems to have agreed.

A lot can change in a hundred years. Today, an unbridgeable chasm seems to have opened between those doing sustained intellectual work and those on the frontlines of struggles against injustice. It’s not that activists and intellectuals don’t sometimes come together. Often, they are even the same person. But their lives – our lives – remain partitioned. The practices common to one zone are not transferable to the other. The university has become the primary site for the development and contemplation of theory today. However, such “theory” is rarely politically committed or oriented to the concrete experiences of those struggling in the trenches. In those trenches, talk about questions of political economy, the nuances of the historical conjuncture, and the content of revolutionary traditions can often seem anachronistic. With all of the immediately discernable tasks that urgently need attention, thinking theoretically can often seem like a supreme indulgence.

Given the extent of this disjuncture it’s understandable that – as activists – we have sometimes preferred to live our lives within the familiar constellation of websites, magazines, and discussion forums that make up our everyday intellectual universe.

Still, it would be hard to find an activist who wouldn’t admit that revolutionary movements in the past were incomparably better organized and more politically consequential than we are today. We confront stories about militant formations like the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had over a million members, with responses alternating between incredulity and suspicion. How could a formation that called for “the abolition of class rule and classes themselves” and was committed to combating “not only the exploitation and oppression of wage earners, but every kind of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race”1 become so massive? With its 4.5 million voters, the SPD was a parliamentary force to be reckoned with. But its reach also extended into the cultural and economic spheres by way of its more than 90 different daily newspapers, affiliated trade unions, and its plethora of sports and cultural clubs, social spaces, and youth and women’s organizations.2

The coordinates of struggle by which the SPD and other emerging socialist movements set their bearings came into being with the rise of the bourgeoisie. Aside from ideas of “the public” and a form of politics enshrined in parliamentarianism and based on the election of representatives, these included newly-developed forms of mass communication: the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and especially the newspaper.


In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie needed the public sphere. They needed spaces where they could demonstrate that truth was the harvest of debate and not the symptom of authority. It was a game of show and tell played at the expense of aristocrats who, up until the French revolution of 1789, could justify their actions on the basis of the divine right of kings. In order to live up to the universal pretensions of their new truth, the bourgeoisie invited sections of the emergent working class to be their guests in the new capitalist wonderland. In Paris, the royal gardens of the ancien regime became public parks. So extensive was the courtship that, by the beginning of the 20th century, trade union delegations were formally invited to attend the international trade fairs that consolidated bourgeois rule through spectacles of “progress” and consumption.

Of course, universalism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As Nancy Fraser has argued, the bourgeois public sphere was constituted by a number of exclusions. It was a social form constituted by bourgeois men to establish themselves as “a ‘universal class’… preparing to assert their fitness to govern” (114).3 Having mobilized large sections of the peasantry, urban plebs, and the nascent proletariat to fight for the seemingly universal principles of freedom, equality, and fraternity, the bourgeoisie simultaneously sought ways of dividing and containing the forces it had helped to unleash. As remains the case today, the “freedom and equality” desired by the bourgeoisie was primarily freedom for capital. It was only provisionally, and with great reluctance, extended to the workers, women, and racialized and colonized people on whose backs the bourgeois order was built.4

Despite the ultimately self-serving character of their universal aspirations, the bourgeoisie’s propagation of the public sphere was an easy seduction to pull off. For working classes that less than a generation earlier had been peasants, hating the aristocracy was easy. Provisional alliances with the bourgeoisie made sense. However, the bourgeois promise of universality could not conceal the stakes of the game indefinitely. And so, although the bourgeoisie was able to convince some workers that their liberation was contingent upon the capitalist development of the productive forces, others began to chart a different escape route. With ingenuity and tenacity, the working classes and other insurgent social forces were able, for a time, to exploit the openings afforded by their official inclusion in the public sphere. And though the bourgeoisie acted like gracious hosts, the fact remains that they had to let them in.

Like bad houseguests, what the working class did in the public sphere made the bourgeoisie blush. Just as enslaved Africans in the Americas took the European 12-tone scale and made their own music with which to organize against slavery and racism, European workers moved into spaces opened by bourgeois rule and became articulate incendiaries. Because of the social contradiction arising from the tendency for the means of production to exceed the constraints of their mode of development, the nascent working-class movement was able to appropriate printing presses, meeting halls, and the emergent framework of democratic and representational politics. For Raymond Williams, E.P Thompson, and other writers from the British Communist Party Historians Group, the public sphere – which depended on the literacy of its initiates – stood as both precondition to and harbinger of the revolutionary socialist movement.

Historically, ruling elites have controlled the most powerful means of knowledge production and dissemination. Priests controlled access to Scripture in the Latin language, slaves were forbidden from learning how to read, and only upper-class women were encouraged to read and write. However, because of the demands of bourgeois politics and the capitalist organization of labour, some of these dynamics began to change in the 19th century. The advent of public education encouraged the movement toward mass literacy. However, for the most part, this literacy was geared toward facilitating functional participation in capitalist social organization and the division and coordination of complex labour processes.

No wonder, then, that the act of becoming critically literate and publishing have been a central touchstone of successful social movements from abolitionism and first-wave feminism to the prisoner justice movement and the Zapatistas. Connecting literacy to critical analysis – developing critical rather than merely functional literacy – has been an important movement task from the work of radical educator Paulo Freire to the Freedom Schools established in the Southern United States at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early development of the European workers movement, great emphasis was placed on gaining the intellectual tools needed to interpret what was happening in the world. Nineteenth and early 20th century socialists organized literacy campaigns, and many workers’ organizations started out as reading clubs. Indeed, it was these reading circles that Marx had in mind when he wrote Capital.


In the 20th century, the political promise of the public sphere seemed to recede along with the public sphere itself. Once the bourgeoisie had settled its debts with the remnants of aristocratic rule (either by displacing them completely or, more commonly, by coming up with bastard and hybrid forms), there was less need for it to distinguish itself by pointing to the objective basis of its truth claims. Bourgeois truths are now more commonly asserted or insinuated than proven (the slogan “There Is No Alternative” comes to mind). Once heralded as the gold standard of bourgeois liberty, freedom of speech and association were subordinated to countervailing concerns with “order” and, later, “security.” Having served its purpose (and having proven to be more trouble than it was worth), the public sphere withered away. By some accounts, it had all but disappeared by 1968, as new forms of privatized self-actualization supported by the growing sphere of individual consumption supplanted earlier versions of collectivity fostered, if only nominally, by bourgeois universalism.

In place of the public sphere, we have seen the proliferation of proxy forms. There are more pages coming off printing presses today than ever before. There is more chatter. The 19th century incitement to speech has become a social imperative. The popularity of internet self-publishing and peer-to-peer networking has expanded the scope of this new “public sphere” almost indefinitely. And yet, for all the millions of words uttered and printed and circulated daily, the quality of political debate has atrophied and receded.

The new conditions are also reflected on the left, where radicals struggle to be heard above the din. Sometimes inadvertently, our efforts end up mimicking capitalist media models based on atomistic consumption. We write standardized press releases; we vie for a quick spot on the 6 o’clock news; we learn how to stay on message. Too readily, we believe that slogans alone are fit for mass distribution. Alternately, we create our own media. Although our websites, zines, and newsletters offer important alternatives to mainstream media, they often remain limited by their tendency to favour reporting over analysis. According to Régis Debray, “nowadays the militants socialize more and know less of each other’s ideas. More conversation means less controversy.”5

Because of the historical decline in debate and real intellectual engagement, the beginning of the 21st century looks very different from the beginning of the 20th. As recounted above, these differences can be measured with respect to objective circumstances. However – and this is important for radicals – they can be measured in subjective terms as well. The same process by which words became hollow through the course of the 20th century can be seen at work in what can only be described as a flattening of perception.

In the current phase of late capitalism, the image has been elevated to a place of primacy in the media’s circulation of knowledge products and time itself has come to take on the attributes of an unending present somehow outside of history. Journalists working for globalized media firms have been transformed into just-in-time content producers. The craft of writing has been replaced by the mind numbing labour of filling column inches. With few journalists in the field and increasing reliance on press releases for content, in-depth analysis has become more difficult to produce. In its place, we have seen the explosion of infotainment, celebrity gossip, and consumer reports.

How did we get to the point where the ability to connect events across time and space was eclipsed by the primacy of immediate sensation? According to Debray, this transformation can be understood as both symptom and outcome of the transformation in the mode of media production. The movement from the graphosphere (the world of the printed word that compelled reading) to that of the videosphere (the world in which we now live where the image has become all) has meant that human consciousness itself has been fundamentally transformed.

Within social movements, this transformation can be documented by way of the slogans used in each moment. For instance, whereas gay liberation activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s mobilized under the slogan “we are everywhere,” by the 1990s, queer radicals were much more prone to chant “we’re here!”6 Although it should not be overstated, the shift in slogans corresponded to a more general shift from a politics of universalism-inclusion to a politics of immanence-presence. In and of itself, this shift was not necessarily a problem. It enabled people to think about the importance of their own situation and helped to call some of the contradictions of the false universalism of rights discourse to account. In its best versions, the shift to a politics of presence encouraged modes of theoretical engagement that made effective use of situated experience as the starting point for social research and political action.

At the same time, something has been lost. In order for a movement to move anything, it must be able to locate itself in time and space. This became increasingly difficult to do under the new conditions. The whole project of socialism is predicated upon a series of abstractions that, although they exist in concrete relation to capitalist social relations, cannot be perceived directly. Whereas, under slavery or feudalism, political and economic power were obviously fused in the hands of the exploiting class, under capitalism workers “freely” sell their labour power as a commodity. In these circumstances, exploitation is not immediately apparent and – paradoxically – requires the mediating assistance of an analytic abstraction (like “surplus value”) in order to be made concrete. On the surface, capitalism appears as “an immense accumulation of commodities.” However, as Marx argued in Capital, “A commodity is a mysterious thing.” Why? “Because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.”

This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as a subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself.7

Our current fascination with direct situated experience – our political desire to assert “we’re here!” – limits our ability to think of the example recounted by Marx in terms of something as seemingly abstract as “the relation of the producers to the sum total of their labour.”


Seeing beyond the surface appearances of capitalism requires a particular form of intellectual engagement and a particular relationship to concepts, where concepts are mobilized not to explain the world but rather to describe those aspects of the world that aren’t immediately perceptible. It requires the ability to think from two points at once. In short, it requires the ability to think historically. Being able to think in this way is not simply of analytic benefit; historical thought also makes it possible to envision modes of intervention that do not simply respond to particular injustices or seek to valorize particular subjective experiences (although both of these projects continue to be necessary). Specifically, it allows us to imagine ourselves as historical actors in order that we may begin to act that way.

It’s not that these kinds of mediated intellectual habits have disappeared completely. They continue to be nurtured (or preserved like relics) in various professional and academic institutions. However, the imperatives of professionalization, matched with the historic defeats of the left, have forced these intellectual habits to recede from the realms of both mass experience and radical practice. Because the public sphere was then still part of the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic project, socialists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were able to appropriate aspects of its intellectual apparatus without having to produce them. In contrast, radicals working in the autumn of the 20th century discovered they needed to produce the techiniques and practices of a new kind of public themselves.

Desperate to revitalize a culture of public intellectualism and passionate debate, the new conditions led many of us to do anachronistic things. Socialist sects looked nostalgically to their past and stood on street corners hollering headlines from Red tabloids. Bewildered, they scratched their heads with fingers blackened by newsprint as people passed by indifferently. More imaginative in their approach, a culture of zinesters arose from the wreckage of the suburbs and started an ill-fated do-it-yourself rebellion. Rummaging through the storage shed of prior forms, they came out covered in dust carrying craft production and the confession, their two most prized possessions. Desperate to communicate, they sought each other out with stapler and glue stick in hand. However, once they found each other, they retreated into the darkened corners of annual zine fairs. Although they would never talk at a party, both the zinester and the faithful member of the small socialist sect tried to revitalize habits of communication that bourgeois rule had made all but obsolete. In political and cultural terms, both remained marginal.

The fact that radicals have so far found it difficult to revitalize the best features of a public intellectualism in order to advance the cause of liberation does not mean that it is not our task and responsibility to do so. Torn between two solitudes – living in a world where 19th century intellectual production is entombed in the academy while activists celebrate immediate experience and media forms based on chatter – radicals often fail to develop the critical arsenal required to understand and fight capitalism in the present.

Writing passionately in Radical Society at the turn of the century, Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti criticized an anti-intellectual strain they observed in the American anti-war and anti-globalization movements.8 Their assessment, although stating the problem in the reductive terms appropriate to polemic, nevertheless highlight a number of points worthy of serious consideration. Most pressing among these is how the movement orientation to what they called “activistism” manifested itself in goal-oriented actions that tended to hinder intellectual debate and development. Activistism was concerned with “practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else.” In contrast to this perspective, the authors proposed that the movement needed to develop “theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them.” While demonstrations made dissent visible and could capture people’s imagination, and while pithy slogans made political messages digestible to a world drunk on sound bytes, movement actors need to commit themselves to intellectual work if they hope to see their struggles flourish.

The critics of activistism penned their polemic in 2002. Six years later, we can see how serious the situation has become. It was bad enough when mass movements succumbed to anti-intellectualism on account of the understandable urge to “do something” (who could blame people for not wanting to be burdened by books when the whole world seemed to be on the move?) but to have that same anti-intellectualism persist in the present, to witness the stubborn neglect of revolutionary texts at a moment when in relative terms movements seem almost everywhere to be in retreat – that is disheartening. It’s almost as if, suffering from failure, radicals concluded that it would be less painful to not attempt to understand the reasons behind its persistence.

Despite the efforts of state-sanctioned polemicists to kill irony in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, it (along with its cousins, cynicism and satire) has flourished in the 21st century. For many young people in North America, The Daily Show has replaced the evening news. Uncertain of what to do, radicals and cynics can nevertheless console themselves by smirking, assured that they know what’s really going on. In opposition to these currents and their myriad pretexts, we agree with Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti that “activists should themselves become intellectuals.” This is what motivates us to produce Upping The Anti, a journal of theory and action.

From time to time, Upping the Anti has been accused of being academic. While we accept that Upping the Anti aims to be intellectual, we do not accept that it is academic. The two must be distinguished. And although the academy has become the primary institutional form of the public intellectualism that was once so important to the left, this does not mean that we must now do without. We are firm believers in taking back what’s ours. This does not mean that activists should retreat to the library. But it does require that some of us, some of the time, engage in sustained intellectual work in a variety of forms. Developing theoretical skills and aiming to grasp the complexity of abstract social relations beyond their immediate expressions can help to counteract and overcome the spasmodic cycles of hyperactivity and burnout that shape activist life.

Sheila Rowbotham understood this as developing “good maps.” Writing about the women’s movement’s need to theorize its transformations, she argued that “we need to be able to take stock of the situation and communicate any general principles to other wanderers.”

We have to establish certain staging posts to refuel and assess the journey. This means we have to sit back momentarily from our immediate response to the route and try to sum up the relationship of what we have traveled to the whole journey.9

Theory Mill

The forms of knowledge and “theory” produced in today’s university are, by and large, of limited utility in this regard. Contemporary universities have given rise to a stratum of cultural workers who have mastered the art of writing books that say almost nothing. Together with the professional obligation to publish, the growth of the university in its (post)modern form has produced a situation in which academics write as much to be marketable as to be intellectually compelling and useful.

This problem has pushed academics into a war of innovation. New “theories” develop at a furious pace, each one more complex and obscure than the last.10 With some exceptions, none bring us any closer to answering the simplest (and most difficult) questions: what are capitalism, imperialism, and oppression, and how should we fight them? Fundamental questions are easy to ask, but hard to resolve. And while it would be a mistake to think that the answers will be found by placing the emphasis exclusively on doing (“we fight by fighting!”), it’s hard to begrudge the activists who feel compelled to do so.

The contemporary academic theory mill legitimizes its efforts by invoking the image of those on the frontlines of both suffering and struggle. Since (like us) most academics have no real answers to the problems encountered by those on the front lines, they quickly reach an impasse. However, rather than proposing (as we do) that the solutions to problems can be found by way of coordinated efforts and by radical activist-intellectuals learning from one another in movement spaces, academics bound to the radical theory mill have devised a simpler (and more profitable) solution: decorate the theory with baroque flourishes! Make it incomprehensible! Pitch it so that it resonates with movement concerns but don’t – under any circumstance – be too specific. Proposing solutions will get you in trouble and, if the solution actually works, will mean that you are out of a job.

It’s a testament to human ingenuity that (even in a context such as this) people have been able to make use of this kind of work. However, it is distressing to note that some of the most successful popularizers of radical theory have not been left social movements but rather their enemies. Not too long ago, Eyal Weizman reported that the Israeli Defense Force was schooling its soldiers in “operational theory.”11 They set up a school and made officers read books by Guy Debord and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. With these texts, and with the concepts they found within them (like “smooth space” and “deterritorialization”), they were able to reconceptualize their mode of engaging in urban warfare. Practically speaking, this involved passing through walls rather than alleyways. In theory, they found a means of avoiding the sniper and the booby trap.

The consequences of these strategies, when measured in terms of human tragedy and injustice, are heart wrenching. Passing through walls, when considered in the abstract, sounds magical. Concretely, it involves blowing through the walls of someone’s living room and marching soldiers through as the inhabitants pick shrapnel out of their dying child. Nevertheless, the IDF schools reveal in concrete terms the connections that can be made between theory and practice. What would be required for the radical left to think of theory in a similar fashion? What would our operational theory look like? And, perhaps most important, does the idea of operational theory go far enough in addressing the current division between theory and practice?

Working on Upping the Anti has been instructive. Because of our commitment to theory and action, we tend to receive submissions from people situated in either social movements or the academy. Sometimes, people divide their lives between these two spaces. (We say “divide” because, based on the submissions, it seems that people write either as academics or as activists, but rarely as both.) What we have come to realize is that, because of the erosion of the popular intellectual tradition and because of the divisions that capitalism fosters between different facets of life, the kinds of writers we hope to publish are actually few and far between.

It would be tempting to conclude that the way to overcome this division is to foster productive exchanges between radical activists and intellectuals, to encourage and challenge each to learn from the habits and preoccupations of the other. However, although it is important to foster this culture of exchange, our collective project has to be more ambitious. We would be kidding ourselves (and each other) to think that the kind of reintegration of theory and practice that we need can proceed by combining what passes for “theory” in the actually-existing university with the forms of “practice” common in movement spaces. More than “operational theory,” what we need to rediscover and nurture are forms of praxis that defy the existing schizophrenic divisions of labour and life. This is no small task, but the important ones rarely are.

For our part, we have set out to help foster a new kind of intellectual engagement within movements. We hope to produce writing that both emerges from and sustains movements, while also interrogating the basic assumptions underlying movement commonsense and challenging the established orthodoxies of our different political scenes. Working with writers has been fun, rewarding, and a learning experience for all of us. It’s been encouraging to see stories evolve from circular koans to hard-hitting polemics. Our hope is that, because of these interactions, our contributors and readers – as well as ourselves – will introduce a new spirit of criticism and proposition into movement spaces.

We’ve been pleased to hear reports from activists and trade unionists that have used content from our journal as a starting point for formal and informal discussions. We hope these practices continue. The nice thing about this work is that we don’t need to know what the solution will be in order to get good results. No one knows what they should be doing. And a good debate yields learners, not winners. We encourage others elsewhere to join (or continue) the fight in whatever forms fit their context and needs. Reading and study groups, along with writing circles and workshops, played an important role in our movement’s past. There is no reason that they cannot continue to do so today. If anything, the need for them has become more urgent.


Spaces like this don’t flourish automatically. In order for them to thrive, it is necessary that social movements break from their current tendency to foreground consensus building. As a mobilization strategy, consensus is important. It allows people to get behind the struggle and gives them a reason to stick with it when the going gets tough. However, as an analytic strategy (as a strategy of determining what the struggle is in the first place), consensus is less useful. Analytic consensus tends to illuminate the obvious but, as we have seen, capitalist social relations require analytic concretion through the process of conceptual abstraction. Because it entails the translation of diverse experiences across time and space, dissidence can be a more reliable instructor in the school of analysis. To be sure, in order for movements to be successful, both agreement and clarity (not to mention, audacity, courage, and cunning) are required. However, contemporary movements have often assumed clarity in advance of gaining it in order to fast track to agreement. Alternately, they have set the terms of agreement at the level of the lowest common denominator and moved the important intellectual work of disagreement off-scene. These strategies have sometimes worked in the short term. But agreement established in this manner is fragile. Minor conflicts can cause it to fall apart.

For political discussion and disagreement within movements to be productive, it is necessary that we revitalize aspects of our intellectual tradition that have been undermined by the new logic of capital. But how do we recapture the intellectual habits of an earlier age – habits that enabled people to assemble maps that led to the future with materials they gathered from the wreckage of the past – without succumbing to nostalgia or, worse, to the belief that revolution is assured if approached in the correct way? We don’t have an answer to this question, but we do have a few ideas.

To begin, it is important to consider the value of boredom. At first, this seems paradoxical. The experience of boredom already seems pervasive. However, our experience of boredom is primarily that of its resolution (at all costs) through the field of consumption. Through consumption, we defer boredom but never face it head on. Partly, this has to do with the tendency for capitalism to enlist people’s desires in order to sell commodities while at the same time ensuring that those commodities never fulfill the desires they enlist. But there is another reason, too.

Boredom itself is unbearable. And it is for precisely this reason that boredom is politically important. It brings with it a sense of duration and difficulty that is wholly at odds with the immediacy of late capitalism. The logic of capital asks us to suspend boredom, to defer it to some future moment in the interminable present. This is because boredom is dangerous. It compels people to reconnect with their ability to act productively outside of the logic of capital. It’s not for nothing that the great moralizers of the past would remind people that “idle hands are the devil’s tools.” But boredom is not idleness. It is the first stage in the labour process, the moment when we ask ourselves what we need to do. How will this unbearable situation be made more bearable? When the cathartic excesses of hyper-activity no longer work, it is time to confront boredom as an old friend, an old nemesis. Beyond boredom lies real productive activity. But, in order to get there, we must get past the gatekeeper. We can’t pull a fast one on boredom. And we can’t defer the confrontation indefinitely.

How can we learn to pass through boredom in order to reconnect with our productive capacities? Partly by sitting still (a skill that both capitalism and our immediate responses to injustice prevent us from cultivating). In the state of boredom, which Walter Benjamin described as the highest state of mental relaxation, the connections between disparate fragments of experience begin to come into focus. The sense of duration brought about by boredom corresponds to the revitalization of historical consciousness. And historical thought, which was so important to the public intellectualism of the past, can be cultivated. But it requires that we look at the world in a different way. Specifically, it requires that we reconnect to the written word and, even more specifically, those forms of writing that remain durable despite the deluge of chatter. Images, the primary media form of the 21st century, promote instantaneity and immediacy. In contrast, the written word demands mediation. Even at its most mechanical level, reading is a process that requires people to think historically, since what is said at the beginning of the sentence only becomes clear by the end.

It is for this reason (among others) that we have chosen to produce Upping the Anti as a journal. The format is important. We don’t print many pictures. We don’t do much fancy layout. The content has to stand for itself. Readers have to commit to it in a manner not required by other media. We are pleased that so many have found it worth their while to do so. Upping the Anti aims to facilitate the production of theory by and for movements. This ambitious task is something that must be carried out (at least in part) through the written word and in the kind of sustained form a journal can help to foster. We don’t doubt the value of leaflets and slogans as means of agitation. They’re exactly what are required to get the message out to as many people as possible. The goal of our journal, however, is different. Instead of agitation, our goal is to foster a more sustained form of activist intellectual development. Upping the Anti is an attempt to present a variety of ideas to a comparatively smaller group of radicals committed to figuring out their tasks and their place in the struggle.

We want to encourage revolutionary intellectuals who do not merely consume other people’s ideas but who produce ideas themselves. And we want to help spread these ideas beyond the fortifications of academia. In this respect, our project corresponds to some other contemporary formations. We feel that New York’s Brecht Forum – with its lectures and workshops in socialist theory – and the yearly Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference in Vermont are both steps in the right direction. However, while these groups facilitate the elaboration of theory by and for movements, they remain by their location at particular addresses. This can be important in terms of ensuring that the movement develops critical infrastructure. However, it means that people’s ability to participate in these spaces is contingent upon their proximity. Not so with a publication.

Although there are still real limits to our distribution networks, Upping the Anti has nevertheless found its way to every continent (except, to the best of our knowledge, Antarctica). We are regularly amazed by the return addresses on the mail we get. At a time when the number of mass convergences (especially in North America) are in decline, Upping the Anti provides a much needed space for collective engagement, discussion, and disagreement for activists from a wide variety of locations and perspectives. A journal is a funny tool for revolutionary struggle. You can’t throw it like a brick or build a barricade with it. You can’t use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card or an invisibility cloak to pass through customs. What a journal does offer is a map. Not only of the world we live in but of the one we hope to create as well. Can you imagine going anywhere without it?


1 The Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, 1891.

2 See the editorial in Upping the Anti #5 for our take on the tragic fate of early Social Democracy.

3 Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, (Craig Calhoun, ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 109-142.

4 As Fraser and others have insisted, the bourgeois public sphere was not just an unrealized utopia. It was an ideological project through and through. However, as a central feature of the hegemonic project of the bourgeoisie, the public sphere was marked by important contradictions. Subordinate classes (and genders, and excluded racial-ethnic groups) were able to appropriate aspects of the bourgeois public sphere in their counter-hegemonic struggles. At the same time, it is worth remembering the limitations of the struggles conducted on this terrain – for example, the masculinist and craft exclusive character of many working class insurgencies, the partial and exclusionary character of many feminist interventions based on class and racial-ethnic distinctions, and the limits of many anti-racist appropriations of public sphere discourse (e.g. Black capitalism in the US and “multi-cultural” elite accommodation in Canada).

5 Regis Debray, “Socialism: A Life-Cycle,” New Left Review, 46, July/August 2007.

6 See Henry Abelove, ‘The Queering of Lesbian and Gay History,’ Radical History Review, 62, Spring 1995: 47-48.

7 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1. Progress Publishers, Moscow, p 77.

8 “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” available at

9 Shelia Rowbotham, Beyond the Fragments, p. 54.

10 For a full account of this process, consult John Sanbonmatsu’s The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject (Monthly Review Press, 2004)

11 “The Art of War,” Frieze Magazine, Issue 99, May 2006. Available at