Breaking the Impasse

Breaking the Impasse

In this issue of Upping the Anti we continue our attempt to engage with the radical political currents in Canada and around the world from which we have taken our name; the politics of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-oppression. In our first editorial, we took as our starting point the fact that these “anti” politics represent the diverse and organic efforts of thousands of people committed to renewing radical politics in the Canadian state outside of both sectarian “party building” and the dead end of social democracy. Though we begin this project with the very negation espoused by these “many no’s,” we recognize that a transformative political project cannot end with a politics of refusal, and that radical movements must make their visions of “another world” concrete. We do not claim to have ready made answers to the questions raised and contradictions produced by these movements, but we recognize the importance of developing spaces within which to expand critical reflection and analysis. As we remarked in our first editorial:

We are all engaged in a process of theorizing and trying to learn the lessons of past and present experience when we gather informally to talk about what in our organizing has worked, and what has failed. Our biggest challenge is to create common spaces for those of us dealing with similar problems and questions in different cities and circles. In the absence of formal, structured and open political spaces of debate, most of these discussions remain isolated within informal networks. Political pronouncements tend to come from the mouths of prominent activists, often chosen for their visibility by the mass media, and because many of our organizing spaces are so committed to immediate and specific campaigns, theoretical reflection is discouraged by the immediate necessity to “do something.” The challenge that currently faces us is how to get this much needed process of debate, discussion, and resolution to occur beyond small groups, personal networks, and prominent individuals, and to have it take place openly and transparently where it can be critiqued and developed by all who have a stake in our struggles.

We see Upping the Anti as a modest contribution to this process, one which we hope others will join us in building. In this editorial, we begin to clarify our viewpoints on the “three antis” with a focus on “anti-oppression” politics. We will make similar attempts to tackle both “anti-imperialism” and “anti-capitalism” in future editorials.

Introduction: What Impasse?

Perhaps the biggest and most difficult challenge to radical organizing over the past several decades has been the inability of those on the left to articulate and concretize a coherent politic that appeals to the diverse and differentiated needs of potentially radical social forces. In considering the rise of anti-oppression politics, it is useful to look at the process by which the “new left” arose in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, Canadian left politics were radicalized by international dynamics, particularly the rise of anti-colonial movements, the US civil rights and Black power movements, and the impact of the Vietnam war. A host of Third World revolutionary movements emerged and appeared to signal that a variety of different “socialisms” were possible. This radicalization took organizational form in the student movement, in rank and file trade unionism and the rise of significant Maoist and Trotskyist organizations, as well as in the influences of anarchist, indigenous, left-Canadian and Québecois nationalist currents. The wide ranging struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s gave birth to a whole series of new social movements which expressed identities and experiences that were not reflected in the politics or worldviews of the “old” communist left. Feminist, youth, indigenous, queer, Black power and Third World movements came to the forefront of the political stage with a militancy and urgency that commanded attention and considerably enriched the left’s understanding of its political tasks.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, however, left radicalism began to fizzle out as Western ruling classes launched a neoliberal offensive against the gains made by working class movements in the post-World War II period, and drove both the labour movement and social democracy into a defensive position. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 transformed the international political order and hastened the demise of existing “old left” groups. Many inspirational Third World liberation struggles, strangled by neo-colonialism and isolated by Western imperialism, also lost their way as they turned in on themselves or became assimilated into the international capitalist order. In response to the new social movements that were the source of so much radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s, the Canadian state developed strategies to contain and recuperate them (for example, through policies of “multiculturalism” and institutional funding for women’s groups).

Today’s movements, many of which were formed by the radicalization of the anti-globalization movement, face a political context strikingly different from that of both the “old” and “new” left. While certain struggles on the international scene are inspiring, they are of a qualitatively different nature, and taking place in a markedly different context, than those of the post-World War II national liberation movements. The Zapatista revolt against neoliberal capitalism has become an inspiration for anti-capitalist radicals around the world, but, with the exception of Cuba and important initiatives now underway in Venezuela, the “actually existing” threat of socialism has, for the most part, vanished.

In Canada, movements for social change remain at a relatively low level of development. Given the Canadian state’s federal nature and its neoliberal strategy of downloading cuts and the restructuring of social programs onto provinces and municipalities, it is not surprising that resistance and radicalism have taken on a markedly localized and “provincial” character. Radical activism, for the most part, remains dispersed amongst small groups whose members organize within specific campuses, communities and neighborhoods without regularly breaking out into larger fields of social contestation. Nevertheless, the specter of mass resistance periodically breaks through. This potential has most recently been evidenced in the B.C. teachers strike in the fall of 2005, the massive strike of university and college students in Quebec in the spring of 2005, and the ongoing “special diet” campaign by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Common Front groups across the province. As important as these struggles are, they remain localized experiences of resistance that exemplify the diversity, isolation and relative weakness of today’s radical movements.

Fighting Identities and the Politics of Oppression

Central to the fragmentation and atomization of the left are current understandings of how different forms of oppression are constituted within capitalist social relations in Canadian society. As activists, we are often initially radicalized through our inductions into “identities” of class, gender, race, sexuality, or culture. These identities emerged out of specific struggles against different forms and instances of oppression: from struggles against segregation, racism, and colonialism, to feminist struggles for reproductive rights and against male violence and to queer struggles against sexual repression and the gender binary. They also emerged out of a critique of the limitations and silences, both in terms of political strategy and organizational practice, of “malestream” socialist politics.

As these various struggles developed they came face to face with the failures of the “old left” to adequately conceptualize relations of oppression in capitalist society, and the failure of mass movements to address their own internal dynamics of domination and unequal power relations. In the first case, these new social movements came up against a class reductionist Marxism which often treated class itself as an undeclared identity for white, Western and male workers. Although there existed some marginalized Marxist groups and theorists who continued to analyze class as a relation and process of social formation, for the most part Marxism seemed unable to offer a liberatory alternative to either Western capitalism or Soviet Stalinism. While Marxist movements continued to be influential during the 1960s, identity politics and activism emerged both within and outside of Marxist circles as a way to address patterns of oppression that were too often ignored or dismissed.

While identity based politics have contributed important insights into real political problems that have not been addressed within the Marxist left, they have in many ways dismissed the contributions of Marxist thought that remain necessary for developing a coherent response to capitalist exploitation. While being critical of “capitalism” and “imperialism” in general terms, those who organize around anti-oppression politics have rarely developed a critique of wage labour and a theory of capitalism or imperialism with which to replace the old Marxist “metanarratives.” Without developing alternatives to capitalist society and its market imperatives, identity based politics of anti-oppression can, at best, seek various forms of redress which leave the capitalist system intact. While these struggles are important, the fact remains that without a vision for systemic change these reforms will always remain limited to sectoral gains that are vulnerable to being rolled back or co-opted.

The critique of the internal operation of leftist movements raised by anti-oppression politics has resulted in a number of important and positive changes, as well as some potentially debilitating tendencies. First, the politics of anti-oppression have made major steps in changing the underlying politics and interpersonal dynamics of radical movements. The overt sexism that characterized many new left groups in the 1960s, in which women were relegated to organizational or service based tasks, has been significantly challenged, and the role of women in social activism has significantly changed over the years. Likewise, activist groups are increasingly willing to problematize the dynamics of privilege and oppression within their ranks, try to take on problems of racism and colonialism, and consider the importance of building broader coalitions and valorizing the voices and strategies of marginalized people. Another important development has been the formation of caucuses and other organizational forms designed to overcome dynamics of oppression within organizing.

At the same time, the practice of anti-oppression politics within activist groups has had its limitations. Those anti-oppression politics that are based on confessional and moralistic politics tend to individualize personal complicity, and can lead to a politics of guilt in which little concrete action is taken. Radicalism can become internalized as an identity itself, and those who do not share the same political language or give the correct answers are often dismissed, while “unenlightened” movements such as the mainstream trade union movement are discounted. While addressing issues of oppression within any movement is integral to its continued success, there is often so much emphasis placed on examining individualized relationships that attention is diverted from political directions that might overcome these limitations. The process of addressing personal behaviors and attitudes must be connected to a wider strategy of collective struggle and social change if it is to be distinguishable from the “sensitivity training” promoted by state and corporate structures.

The process of strengthening our critiques and struggles is also hindered by the expectation that oppressed groups should do all the work of addressing oppression themselves; for example, it is often left up to women to overcome sexism, and for people of colour to combat problems of racism. While the leadership and autonomous self organization of oppressed groups is key, a politics of responsibility rather than one of simple representation is necessary in order to move forward. This politics of responsibility is about more than solidarity based on learning from and supporting the struggles of oppressed people. It extends into recognizing and taking responsibility for our own social locations and our collective implication in oppression, and understanding how these can inform our approach to social struggle. At the same time, new practices are needed so that a politics of responsibility can shape, and be shaped by, the political direction of an organization. Otherwise, the language of anti-oppression can provide an “easy way out” for individuals or organizations, who can attend the obligatory anti-oppression workshop and adopt a checklist of how to “be a better ally,” while making little more than rhetorical changes to their political priorities and directions.

Anti-oppression politics have inspired white middle class radicals to move into supportive roles around the struggles of other communities and groups. But while it can be important for activists to “stand back” and “take leadership” from individuals and groups that have been systematically disadvantaged or who are at the forefront of specific struggles, this can lead to an abdication of political judgment and implication for “privileged” activists. When the injunction is raised, as it was in the 1960s, for “white people to organize in your own communities,” predominantly white middle class activists find themselves with few tools for actually engaging with white working class communities, where an anti-oppressive politics based on the “giving up of privilege” rings hollow.


Part of this inability to work across difference without reducing one’s material standpoint to a fixed mode of being or consciousness is due to the fact that, in many cases, identity based “anti-oppression” politics have failed to develop a clear perspective on capitalism. The totality of class relations is often reduced to a “classist” attitude held by the rich or middle class and capitalism is generally thought of as an abstract, amorphous “thing” whose worst excesses are opposed on moral grounds. Within this rhetoric, “class” itself becomes simply one thread woven into a multi patched fabric of competing identities.

While social relations must not be reduced to political economy, class must be understood as a pervasive set of historically specific social relations of property, production, and social power that implicate everyone, and through which all of our oppressions are lived. We argue, following the perspective of Himani Bannerji (see our interview with her in this issue), that a critique of capitalist social relations and the relations of oppression within which they are produced and reproduced provides a necessary framework for realizing the liberatory potential of anti-oppression politics. In contrast to the narrow ‘class-first’ position that we still hear in parts of the left, we suggest that relations of exploitation and oppression are organized in and through each other, and that they have a mutually constructed or mediated social character.

As activists, we need an approach that speaks to the complexity of oppression and which seeks to develop a broader class politic that can tackle this oppression in the context of challenging capitalist social relations. One of our goals with this journal is to create a space for dialogue across difference that does not give in to fragmentation, but which works to come up with strategies for change that are both context specific, and which have broad appeal. Fragmentation and difference must not be denied or repressed in the drive for an artificial unity, but neither should they become self-justifying and celebrated ends in themselves. “Anti-oppression” must continue to be engaged, but not as a static, moralistic and paralyzing analysis and practice. In order to practice solidarity and realize movement across difference, we need to replace the abstract language of identity and authenticity with a materialist understanding of how the social relations of capitalism are produced and reproduced in all their complexity. To overcome the impasse at which we currently find ourselves, we must rejuvenate old, and develop new, critical frameworks for analyzing capitalism and oppression that speak to the possibilities of common resistance.

In solidarity,
Aidan Conway, Erin Gray, Tom Keefer, Sharmeen Khan
January 1, 2006.