Cultivating a Long View

(Image: “Change Now” by Pete Railand, part of the Justseeds graphics collection)

Cultivating a Long View 1

“How do you avoid the feeling that you should be working ALL THE TIME given the urgency of the state of the world?”

Heather Hax, a longtime activist in Baltimore, posted that question on social media a few years ago. It garnered a lot of responses, and with good reason. This sense of urgency is completely justified, and many of us are feeling it. We live in a profoundly frightening and unpredictable period, faced with the challenges of colonialism and climate catastrophe, economic austerity and state violence, and emboldened white supremacy and xenophobia.

How can we hold this sense of urgency while pacing ourselves for the long haul? Part of the answer lies in cultivating a particular understanding of the world, our efforts, and ourselves. Following seasoned radical organizers, I call this understanding a “long view.” This view combines an urgent commitment to fighting injustice, a grounded sense of the marathon-length collective effort required to change society, and abundant patience for the process of building movements that can win, all with a healthy dose of humility about what we can know and do.

The basic idea here is that efforts to transform the world generally take longer than we’d like. We rarely win everything that we want instantaneously, we have to fight hard with institutions that we despise, and we face all sorts of challenges and setbacks. At the same time, social change is never a linear, straightforward process. There are always unpredictable things that happen, and the pace of history can shift dramatically and unexpectedly. The current shape of society is the contingent outcome of previous gains and losses of those who fought before us, sometimes slogging through periods of marginality and defeat and other times accelerating through world-historic mobilizations and transformations. What we’re currently doing may well have effects that we can’t predict in five, twenty, or one hundred years. In ways that will probably surprise us, some of those effects will be positive, others less so.

For some people, a long view is common-sense. Those who come up in communities in struggle with dense intergenerational relationships and sustained collective memory often learn this kind of perspective early on in their lives. This is the case for many Indigenous people and those rooted in the Black radical tradition. It has also been significant in left-wing working-class cultures and radical queer communities. Although it’s not exactly the same, people who stay involved in movements for decades also tend to develop a long view, mostly through direct experience, collaborative reflection, and the communities they build.

There’s nothing magical or mysterious about fostering this kind of perspective. While some circumstances certainly make it easier, people have developed a long view in all sorts of times and places. Wherever we’re situated, we can consciously work with others to cultivate one too. In this article, I explore how we can generate and nourish this kind of shared understanding.

Resistant Remembering

Cultivating a long view requires deliberately working against what activist-scholars Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile call “the social organization of forgetting.” This widespread process of forgetting, they write, “is crucial to the way in which social power works in our society. We no longer remember the past struggles that won us the social gains, social programs, and human rights that we now often take for granted.” 2 And as ruling institutions sever us from social and historical memory, we lose access to a wealth of knowledge for changing our present. Combating the social organization of forgetting thus requires what Kinsman describes as “the resistance of remembering.” 3 I like to think of it as “resistant remembering” in order to emphasize the active, ongoing, collective dimensions of this practice.

Resistant remembering involves actively reaching beyond the most readily available stories about the present and the past. Ruling institutions encourage us to understand ourselves in a very particular, constrained way: as atomized individuals (often, including our immediate families) striving to get by day-to-day vaguely connected to a distant history with little tangible bearing on our lives. In taking a long view, we can instead understand ourselves in a much more expansive, interconnected way: as living together in a present that is fundamentally shaped by the past, and which, whether we like it or not, is currently shaping the future. We are living history.

Resistant remembering also means placing the activities of ordinary people at the centre of how we understand history and change. Dominant narratives that we encounter through media and schooling encourage us to believe that powerful and charismatic individuals, whether rich people, politicians, or celebrities, are responsible for creating social change. Such narratives suggest that people at the top of society “make history”—sometimes benevolently, sometimes not— while the rest of us watch in wonder or fear.

These narratives are lies. In fact, the struggles of ordinary people are the main motor of history. Time and time again, people have fought back against the oppression and exploitation they’ve encountered. Sometimes, through a breathtaking combination of collaboration, skill, perseverance, and luck, they’ve won major victories that have dramatically reset the terrain of struggle and improved the lives of subsequent generations. The end of chattel slavery, limitations on the length of working days, greater bodily autonomy for women, and the decriminalization of homosexuality are just a few examples. Collective fights for justice and dignity propel change. 4

As we build our capacities for resistant remembering, the world around us becomes much less fixed. We can begin to tap into a more deeply-felt sense that things have been—and can be—otherwise. After all, most of the social structures and arrangements that we currently take for granted, such as race, private property, police, the nuclear family, waged work, fossil fuels, and much more, are comparatively recent developments in human history.

The slogan popularized by the prison-industrial complex abolitionist organization Critical Resistance is apt here: “Once there were no prisons. That day will come again.” All forms of social organization had starting-points, which means they can have endpoints as well. No matter how permanent and unassailable they may seem, ruling relations and institutions can be challenged and changed through organizing and struggle. Rarely is this easy or quick, but it is always possible.

Learning from the Past

Cultivating a long view also involves actively learning from the past, particularly from previous efforts to transform the world. Another form of resistant remembering, this is what activists and social movement historians sometimes describe as a search for “useable pasts.” 5 As many point out, we won’t find replicable recipes for revolution in history; with shifting social conditions and dynamics, circumstances are never exactly the same. Nonetheless, previous experiences of struggle have much to offer us.

How exactly can we use these pasts? For one, studying histories of social struggles and movements can help us to reflect more deeply on how we do things currently. When we look at the past, we can see that there is nothing “natural” or “eternally correct” about the practices and ideas of the present. Everything we take up, whether a tactic such as street protests, a concept such as intersectionality, or an organizing technique such as door-knocking, is a product of history: acting in specific contexts, ordinary people developed these things, tried them out, argued about them, and refashioned them over time. In learning how they did this, we can hone our own capacities to generate, evaluate, and remake practices and ideas for our time.

Previous experiences of struggle can help us gain some perspective as well. This is especially the case when it comes to political debates on the left. Although there are always new questions that develop in movements, most disagreements are not entirely new and many have had previous iterations. Indeed, one of the most humbling things about studying past transformative efforts is seeing how regularly the same sorts of debates come up across generations: How should we understand the relationship between capitalism and heteropatriarchy? What can radical organizations accomplish? How can we successfully fight for short-term victories on the way toward broader structural change? What place do healing and personal transformation have in movement efforts? Who is the primary agent of change? These and so many of the other questions we discuss in movements today are ones that previous radicals thought hard about and debated intensely, even if they used different terms and points of reference. With a long view, we can understand ourselves as joining these ongoing conversations and consciously seek out past insights that may clarify current debates.

Examining the past can also assist us in thinking about the internal challenges and complexities that today’s movements face. In particular, looking closely at the strengths and weaknesses of past movements can help us to assess our own efforts: how do our resources and limitations compare to those who came before us? How did previous movements attempt to build on their strengths and work with the problems they encountered? What can we distill from their experiences that might help us now? What have we learned since their times that might change how we approach similar challenges in the present? Again, there are no recipes to be found in history, but we can draw out lessons.

The past can be a valuable aid for strategic thinking, too. Studying historical struggles can help us to map out the terrain on which we presently fight, including what is unique and not-so-unique about it. We can examine how activists in previous eras analyzed their circumstances, envisioned social transformation, and tried to put their ideas into action. Importantly, this includes investigating their victories, defeats, and mixed successes. This can assist us in developing initiatives that are responsive to our circumstances and grounded in our best understandings of how social change happens. As well, it can help us to anticipate obstacles and setbacks that we are likely to encounter and consider how we might contend with them.

In addition, we can find a lot of inspiration in the past. Learning about the courage, creativity, and commitment of those who came before us is tremendously motivating. We can also draw sustenance from the conceptions of a better world that previous movements generated. To use a formulation from the radical historian Robin Kelley, these are “freedom dreams”: visions of liberation that people created, together, through imagination and struggle. 6 When we take these seriously, we can see that some freedom dreams of the past are, in fact, more audacious, imaginative, and elaborated than those of the present. 7 Exploring these dreams, including their tensions and contradictions, can encourage us to nurture our own.

Looking at the past can also help us to embrace complexity. As soon as we start studying previous movement experiences in detail, we inevitably encounter the complications and messiness of actual people trying (and, yes, sometimes failing) in actual situations of struggle. People make bad decisions, treat others terribly, become dogmatic, burn out, betray their comrades, denounce one another, drift away from politics, and at times give up entirely. People also come up with marvellous plans, develop stunningly inventive forms of collective action, care for one another, generate visionary ideas, learn from experience, collaborate across differences, persevere through great hardship, enact steadfast solidarity, and sometimes win victories.

In short, there are no superheroes or saints in movement history, just ordinary people with all of our fallibility and brilliance. Recognizing this is useful because it reminds us that, again and again, imperfect people have contributed to making a better world and that we too, with all of our contradictions, can make important contributions. Understanding that things were complicated and messy in the past can perhaps also help us to be more generous with one another in the present.

An Intergenerational Chain of Struggle

Taking up a long view also involves significantly shifting how we understand our lives. Ruling institutions encourage us to see ourselves, individually, as connected to previous generations primarily through patriotic stories of nation-states (“national history”) and nuclear family ties (“family history”). Discussions of future generations are generally vague, mainly focusing on aspirations for individual children’s lives. These sharply circumscribed ways of understanding ourselves, shaped especially by colonial and heteropatriarchal relations, are central to the social organization of forgetting.

Against this, a long view involves viscerally experiencing ourselves as links in an intergenerational chain of struggle for justice and dignity. This is something that a migrant justice activist from Tucson pointed out to me several years ago. It offers us a very different way to think about our lives: we build on the sacrifices and contributions of those who came before us, and we make our own sacrifices and contributions for those who will come next. We are participants in an ongoing, dynamic story that spans centuries, and we can make some deliberate choices about the roles we play in this story.

Another way I’ve come to think about this is in terms of responsibilities. Holding a long view means recognizing our obligations to both the past and the future. 8 To the past, we are responsible for sustaining collective memory and emancipatory visions, carrying on legacies of organizing and struggle, and working with others to right systemic wrongs, particularly ones that benefit us. To the future, we are responsible for fighting for a just and habitable world with everything we’ve got, doing what we can to build a foundation for more effective and visionary movements in the years to come, and humbly offering our experiences, reflections, and dreams.

This multi-generational perspective can help us to find continuity and community in our efforts. Even when we’re feeling alone, afraid, or embattled, we can look backward along this chain of struggle, drawing sustenance and insight from the millions of people who previously felt these completely ordinary feelings and carried on. Similarly, we can look ahead along this chain, imagining the people and movements of decades to come and the contributions we hope to make for their flourishing.

Along with continuities, this kind of perspective can assist us in identifying the intergenerational legacies we wish to break. This is especially important for those of us who obtain some advantages from the current organization and administration of power. Social relations of racism, to take one example, produce whiteness as an intergenerational political project that recruits people identified as “white” to align with ruling elites and against Indigenous people, Black people, and others racialized as “not white.” Over more than four centuries, this alignment has been crucial for sustaining colonialism and capitalism in North America. Applying a long view, we can see that this is a legacy that many before us, coming from many different circumstances, have attacked for the good of humanity and the planet. It’s one that we can work to break as well. In this way, understanding ourselves as links in a chain of struggle involves making practical choices about which legacies we build on, and which we fight. 9

This type of understanding can also help us to appreciate the significance of robustly multi-generational movements. Sustained efforts to transform the world need ways of reproducing themselves and need contributions from people throughout their lives. Whether we look at Indigenous peoples fighting for sovereignty, the long Black freedom struggle, or sustained working-class movements against capitalism, resilient resistance almost always involves people of different generations working together (though not without tension and conflict). This means building movements capable of welcoming and holding children, ageing people, and caregivers. 10

The Struggle Within the Struggle

There is also an intergenerational chain of struggle within movements. Looking back, we can recognize that one of the most consistent challenges liberatory efforts face is the tendency, usually unconscious, to replicate oppressive values and practices from dominant society. Many who have come before us have observed this tendency, and radical Black and other feminists of colour in the 1960s and 1970s played a particularly pivotal role in describing and challenging it. Still, it’s worth repeating the insight: even as we fight hierarchies based on gender, ability, race, sexuality, class, citizenship status, and other ruling relations, these hierarchies have shaped us and we frequently participate in reproducing them. As New York-based prison abolitionist Pilar Maschi said to me a number of years ago: “We’re trying to break down the system, and it lies in all of us.”

There are, sadly, many historical examples of this tendency and we can see it in today’s movements as well. Consider some concrete examples: the types of people (often cisgender men, usually white and able-bodied, frequently university-educated) who most often step confidently into leadership roles in movements, the ongoing reality of sexual assault among activists, or the movement activities (such as writing, public speaking, and high-risk direct action) that regularly get the most social recognition. We can also see this in the exclusionary assumptions that sometimes get built into campaigns. For instance, some environmental organizations have campaigned to “conserve” lands without ever meaningfully consulting the Indigenous peoples who have long cared for and lived in these places. Likewise, some immigrant rights efforts have used the slogan “we’re not criminals,” effectively leaving behind anyone who has ever been entangled with the criminal justice system.

This tendency poses significant challenges. Oppressive values and practices don’t just harm people and mar our liberatory aspirations. They also undermine our effectiveness: they spread hurt and distrust, corrode alliance-building, impede visionary strategy-making, damage and sometimes destroy organizations, and hold people back from manifesting their full capabilities. Whether we examine the past or the present, it’s clear that replicating social relations of domination invariably weakens movements.

While there is nothing new about any of this, there is thankfully nothing permanent about it either. With a long view, we can appreciate the determined efforts across cycles of struggle to challenge and transform oppressive values and practices in movements. Among many other experiences, Black people confronted racism in the first abolitionist movement, women contested sexism in the early socialist movement, immigrants and racialized people battled exclusion in the early labour movement, queers criticized heterosexism in movements of the 1960s, women of colour challenged racism and class status hierarchies in the women’s liberation movement, Black and other people of colour tackled racism in the Occupy movement, gender nonconforming people have fought for space in feminist and queer movements, and disabled people have challenged wide-ranging exclusions on the Left. 11

Although movements have an unfortunate tendency to replicate oppressive dynamics, this pattern rarely goes uncontested. Indeed, activists have criticized and fought entrenched social hierarchies in nearly every liberation struggle. Taken together, this is what some experienced radicals call “the struggle within the struggle.” The people who have led these struggles within the struggle have most often been those who directly experience devaluation and exclusion. At least initially, they have usually been small in number. But their efforts, over time, have had far-reaching effects. The development and impact of feminism, particularly over the last half-century, powerfully illustrates this. Women active in the movements of the 1960s consistently described widespread, unapologetic sexism and misogyny on the Left: being recognized only in terms of the men they were dating, excluded from organizational leadership and decision-making, ignored and disregarded in meetings, unquestioningly assigned to secretarial and caregiving roles, and subjected to overt harassment and demeaning jokes, among many other egregious experiences. The women’s liberation movement grew, in part, in direct opposition to this toxic atmosphere. 12 Because of those efforts and the subsequent cycles of feminist struggle, the culture of not only the Left but also dominant society is markedly different today.

Over the years, many feminists have helped me to appreciate more fully the significance of this change. I think particularly here of longtime activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, herself a prominent figure in the movements of the 1960s. Reflecting on sexism during that period, she told me at one point, “It used to be so blatant, where some guy would just say ‘shut up bitch, you talk too much.’ No guy would even consider that kind of blatant sexism now.” Importantly, she added, “But it does come out in other ways.” 13 This is a helpful frame: by no means did previous feminist efforts fully eradicate heteropatriarchy on the Left, but they substantially shifted expectations, practices, and behaviours. Today’s organizing against gender-based oppression rests on their efforts, including both their successes and failures.

Much the same can be said for all sorts of other struggles within the struggle. Collective efforts to challenge the replication of oppression within movements have, in many cases, had lasting and sometimes profound effects. For sure, as long as our society remains structured by exploitation and oppression, dominant values and practices will continue to seep into even our best attempts at social transformation. 14 But if we take a long view, we can recognize that, when we confront oppression in current movement initiatives, we are neither alone nor doing anything wholly new. With appreciation and intention, we can build upon the work that those before us have done to generate more and more emancipatory space within movements. In this sense, too, we can understand ourselves as participating in an intergenerational chain of struggle.

A Global Orientation

Fostering a long view involves not just a more expansive vision of time but also of place. One of the most strikingly consistent aspirations of liberatory movements—from the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century to the global anti-war movement of the early 21st century— is solidarity across borders. Although we can point to many failures of this aspiration in practice, we can also appreciate its endurance as a lodestar across generations and geographies of struggle. This endurance suggests that part of holding a long view is attempting to hold the world in view. Following activist-scholar Adam Hanieh, I think of this as taking “a global orientation.” 15

On the Left, we have most often talked about this in terms of internationalism. 16 While this ideal has taken different forms in different times and places, the central principle is working across national borders to offer tangible solidarity in struggles against oppression and exploitation and for dignity and self-determination.

Internationalism has been important in some Indigenous traditions as well and is crucial for decolonial struggles today. As Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson emphasizes, many Indigenous peoples have long practiced elaborate forms of internationalism with other human and nonhuman nations. 17 Whether in defence of Standing Rock or Wet’suwet’en territory, recent Indigenous-led efforts have built on these practices, fostering international relations in joint struggles against colonial dispossession and ecological devastation. These experiences underline that internationalism includes solidarity among and with Indigenous nations, even within the colonial borders of nation-states.

Building on internationalist ideals and practices, a global orientation involves consistently looking beyond our national contexts and thinking on a world scale. We are living in rich and dense relations with everyone else on the planet, even those who are far away physically and socially. At the same time, our world is riven by power relations that are shaped by dispossession, exploitation, and profit-making. These relations produce life and benefit for some, particularly concentrated in the Global North, and suffering and death for others, particularly concentrated in the Global South. Of course, these disparities are present within countries as well.

A global orientation is essential for understanding and confronting the interconnected crises we are experiencing. While this is especially clear with the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating climate emergency, it is just as crucial for other contemporary crises of economies, care, migration, state violence, biodiversity, and rising authoritarianism. The current scale of the crisis is planetary, although there are plenty of specific manifestations at regional and national levels. If we take a global orientation, we can make better sense of these crises and make more strategic choices about contending with them.

A more affirmative way to think about this is that a global orientation opens up possibilities for solidarity and struggle at the scale necessary for fundamental social change. If we take a long view, we can see that staying within the confines of nation-states consistently undermines liberatory efforts. Successfully challenging ruling systems requires building movements, rooted in particular places, that communicate and collaborate across borders. This is the substance of the slogan from the global justice movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, popularized by the international anti-capitalist network Peoples’ Global Action: “let our resistance be as transnational as capital.”

With a long view, we can also see how much a global orientation has enriched social struggles and movements historically. After all, this is not the first time that people have faced transcontinental crises with unfathomably high stakes. We need only think about European colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, capitalism’s devastating economic slumps, the rise of fascism, the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, and countless US military interventions, to name just a handful of examples. In many previous circumstances, people fighting domination and destruction forged links of solidarity with people fighting in other parts of the world. At their best, they brought a spirit of care and curiosity to these relationships as they exchanged experiences, visited one another, pooled knowledge, shared resources, built coalitions, and worked to challenge local institutions responsible for oppression and devastation elsewhere.

Although frequently fraught, these relationships of solidarity have often been transformative. With a global orientation, activists in North America can learn from movements in places where the level of mass mobilization and political consciousness is much higher. Previous generations looked to France, Russia, Spain, Cuba, Vietnam, China, Nicaragua, and South Africa, among other places. In more recent decades, activists have looked to Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid, the Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas, and the Kurdish-led social revolution in Northeastern Syria. In addition to offering insights and inspiration, learning about these experiences can also serve as a sobering reminder that North America is not the centre of the world; rather, it’s a region with a lot of concentrated wealth and power that does tremendous damage across the planet. This awareness is a crucial part of a global orientation, particularly for those of us who live in North America.

Embracing Unpredictability

Cultivating a long view also involves embracing unpredictability. This can be challenging, particularly for those of us who find security in being able to assume that we know what will happen next. There are, for sure, predictions we can make with some confidence, such as those about the worsening climate emergency and the instability of global capitalism. But when we look carefully at the history of social struggles and social movements, we encounter so many surprises.

Writing in 1994, the radical historian Howard Zinn observed, “We forget how often in this century we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.” 18 Zinn was thinking about the big upheavals he had witnessed during his lifetime: victorious decolonization struggles across the Global South, the rise of anti-racist and feminist movements, the defeat of the US military in Vietnam, the demise of the Soviet Union, and more.

So much of what has transpired was unpredictable, and so much of what is yet to come we cannot foresee. This is humbling. Embracing it can help us to acknowledge our limits more honestly. Reflecting on his experiences with the unexpected takeoff of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, organizer Yotam Marom is blunt about this: “We just don’t know that much. We don’t know what’s going to work, what will resonate, or what people are ready for. Even those who look back and say they called it, the truth is, they didn’t know either.” 19 We could say the same for so many of the surprisingly fast-moving mobilizations of the last decade, such as Idle No More, strikes by teachers and prisoners, youth-led climate strikes, and the Movement for Black Lives. All of these mobilizations built on longstanding organizing efforts and tapped into popular anger and aspirations, but no one can fully explain why they took off when and how they did.

Embracing unpredictability doesn’t mean giving up on deliberate organizing efforts and simply waiting for the next wave of mass mobilization. Quite the opposite. “The not knowing means we will be wrong lots of the time, and right some of the time,” writes Marom. 20 And since we cannot know in advance when we’ll be right, we have to make our best guesses about what will be strategic and effective, and keep working with others to try things out. With a long view, we can see this is a common thread through movements of the past: while a struggle is unfolding, no one can say for sure whether it is going to be successful. When auto workers started occupying a factory in Flint, Michigan, in 1936 or when Black students began sitting-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, there were no guaranteed victories. People took action based on their hopes, their indignation at injustice, and their assessments of unfolding possibilities.

Looking backward in time, we can create persuasive narratives that seamlessly thread together the activities that eventually led to movement wins. And we can certainly analyze previous experiences of struggle to figure out what was particularly effective. But the reality of the past is always messy and complex, full of uncertainty, contingency, and things we may never know. For any movement victory, the only thing we can say with complete certainty is that many people doing many things, cumulatively, made something happen that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. A whole bunch of efforts, together, shifted the balance of power and led to a win.

Understanding this encourages us to have a much more capacious appreciation for the range of ways that people contribute to social movements and social transformation. 21 That is, recognizing the limits of what we can know can help us to see the potential in many activist efforts, even those that may seem insignificant or wrong-headed to us. Running campaigns to change public policies, taking direct action, establishing community institutions, setting up education programs, building organizations, painting graffiti, engaging in cultural revitalization projects, moving resources to grassroots efforts, offering public testimony, creating art installations, organizing in workplaces, raising children in community, setting up mutual aid infrastructure, protesting attacks on previous movement gains, challenging interpersonal forms of oppression, physically confronting reactionary forces, and setting up coalitions: these and many more contributions can be crucial. Indeed, successful movements of the past have combined these sorts of activities, at many different scales, to build collective power and achieve victories.

If we want to succeed, we should do our best to learn from previous experiences and be thoughtful about what we do. But who’s to say what precise combination of activities, in which set of unfolding circumstances, will ultimately make a difference? If we can’t know for sure what will be most important in the long run, we should think twice before dismissing what someone is doing as completely worthless. As veteran activist, singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon reminds us, the particular “way” or “issue” that any one of us chooses is not the way or issue. 22 If we assume that it is, we risk missing out on potentially vital pathways to liberation. With a long view, we can embrace unpredictability and all of the possibilities that come with it.

Staying Grounded

At its core, a long view is a set of habits of thinking and acting based on a particular understanding of history and struggle. These are habits, as I’ve suggested, that we can deliberately cultivate. They include maintaining links to the past, learning from those who came before us, seeing our efforts in intergenerational and global terms, and remaining open to new approaches and unpredictable developments. Built on a collective practice of resistant remembering, these habits can help us to appreciate the fragility of ruling institutions and the always-present possibilities for change. They are resources for identifying opportunities and sustaining hope.

These habits are practically useful as well. That is, they can help us to struggle more effectively right now. In the pace of movements and mobilizations, years can sometimes feel like decades and, with frequent activist turnover, we all too easily end up repeating similar mistakes and fights over and over again. The habits of a long view can help us to listen more carefully, act more collaboratively, reflect more deeply, think more strategically, learn from our mistakes, build on our strengths, and have new discussions that propel us forward.

These habits also offer tools for navigating the frequently disorienting circumstances in which we find ourselves. As we look backward, they can assist us in tracing the pathways that have led to our present, the lineages of struggle upon which we are building, and the lines of conflict and debate that shape the questions we face today. Looking forward, these habits can help us to understand (and, just as importantly, evaluate) our efforts through not only what they accomplish now, but also the groundwork they lay for future liberatory initiatives. Taking a long view enables us to locate ourselves within history as we attempt to act upon history.

Perhaps most importantly, these habits can help us to stay grounded for the long haul. In this period of accelerating crises and pervasive fear, we can be easily compelled into focusing solely on the short-term and reacting to what feels most immediate in our lives. Indeed, it can be tempting to give up on the future entirely. With a long view, however, we can remember that so many of those who came before us struggled, amid catastrophes and without guarantees, for new worlds that they could not yet fully imagine. 23 They lived full lives, fought hard, suffered defeats, and won victories. We can too. *


  1. This article uses portions of material that I previously published in Briarpatch, Canadian Dimension, and Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar. I’m grateful to all of these publications for allowing me space to develop and share ideas. ↩︎
  2. Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 21. This construction of history is particularly central to colonialism. On this, see Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Books, 2012), 30–36. ↩︎
  3. Kinsman quoted in L. Natascia, “Remembering the Queer Liberation Movement’s Radical Roots,” Halifax Media Co-op, August 3, 2012, ↩︎
  4. For classic elaborations of this argument, see W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (New York: Russell, 1935); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980). My view on this has been especially shaped by C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). ↩︎
  5. I have heard many people refer to this formulation, but I first encountered it in print in Mari Jo Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 325. ↩︎
  6. As Kelley writes, “Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives about oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society. We must remember that the conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way.” Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 9. ↩︎
  7. I take this point from Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), chapter 3. ↩︎
  8. On this, I draw from Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 6–7. ↩︎
  9. This paragraph takes inspiration from two songs close to my heart: “Legacy” by Trial and “To Inherit the Guilt” by Heaven Shall Burn. ↩︎
  10. My thinking on multigenerational movement-building has been especially shaped by the work of Helen Hudson, Rahula Janowski, and Victoria Law. See Chris Dixon, “Movements Where People Can Grow: An Interview with Helen Hudson,” Upping the Anti, no. 8 (2009): 81–94; Rahula Janowski, “Collective Parenting for Collective Liberation,” Left Turn, February 2007; Victoria Law, “Where’s My Movement? Contemporary Anarchist Mothers and Community Support,” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 13, no. 1 (2011): 19–30. See also Victoria Law and China Martens, eds., Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (Oakland: PM Press, 2012). ↩︎
  11. For some instructive histories of these struggles, see Robert Allen and Pamela P. Allen, Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974); Tommi Avicolli Mecca, ed., Smash the Church! Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation (San Francisco: City Lights Press, 2009); Buhle, Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920; Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016); Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire, eds., We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (Oakland: AK Press, 2012); Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018); Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (Toronto: Penguin, 2005); Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Joan Sangster, Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 1920-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); Susan Stryker, Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Seal Press, 2017). ↩︎
  12. On this, see Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1980). ↩︎
  13. Chris Dixon, “The Opposite of Truth Is Forgetting: An Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,” Upping the Anti, no. 6 (2008): 53. See also Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975 (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001). ↩︎
  14. Dixon, “Movements Where People Can Grow,” 87. ↩︎
  15. Adam Hanieh, “This Is a Global Pandemic – Let’s Treat It as Such,” Verso (blog), March 27, 2020, ↩︎
  16. For a helpful elaboration of the left internationalist tradition, see Upping the Anti Editorial Committee, “What Are We Waiting for? Rethinking Internationalism and Localism,” Upping the Anti, no. 17 (July 2015). See also David Featherstone, Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (London: Zed Books, 2012). ↩︎
  17. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), chap. 4. See also Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), chap. 6. ↩︎
  18. Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 207. ↩︎
  19. Emphasis in original. Yotam Marom, “Reflections on Occupy: Revolutions Are Made by Those Who Intend to Be Powerful » Organizing Upgrade,” Organizing Upgrade (blog), September 28, 2021, ↩︎
  20. Marom, “Reflections on Occupy.” ↩︎
  21. Peter Bohmer first pointed this out to me. Peter Bohmer, “Panel Presentation on Activism” (The Evergreen State College, February 3, 1998). ↩︎
  22. As Johnson Reagon memorably says, “Watch these mono-issue people. They ain’t gonna do you no good.” Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 363. ↩︎
  23. I take this, in part, from Walidah Imarisha’s evocative proclamation: “All organizing is science fiction.” Walidah Imarisha, “Introduction,” in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 3. ↩︎