How To Resist, in 6 Books

Your guide to the guides to the resistance.

Kate Aronoff April 27, 2017

Overwhelmed by the recent spate of books on organizing? We've got you covered. (Image by Rachel K. Dooley)

If there is a sil­ver lin­ing to Trump’s elec­tion, it’s the sheer num­ber of peo­ple join­ing the resis­tance. But Clinton’s defeat and the rise of the far Right have also kicked off a round of soul-search­ing about what that resis­tance should look like. The Left’s tools, tac­tics and strate­gies haven’t stopped a decades-long right­ward drift. So how can we do bet­ter? A num­ber of new books set out to answer that question.

Each of these authors would likely agree that any movement capable of effecting large-scale change needs to extend beyond self-identified radicals.

In Direct Action: Protest and the Rein­ven­tion of Amer­i­can Rad­i­cal­ism, vet­er­an orga­niz­er L.A. Kauff­man gives a thor­ough and often cringe­wor­thy intro­duc­tion to what the Left has been up to since the 1970s, chron­i­cling tac­ti­cal inno­va­tions like the­atri­cal dis­rup­tions along­side more annoy­ing habits, such as preach­ing to the choir and emp­ty rit­u­al. The Left’s qua­dren­ni­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion protests, she writes, some­times seemed to hap­pen only because con­ven­tion protests have hap­pened before.”

Jonathan Matthew Smuck­er, author of Hege­mo­ny How-To: A Roadmap for Rad­i­cals, also wres­tles with the Left’s more insu­lar and self-lim­it­ing habits. A not-insignif­i­cant num­ber of left­ists, he argues, have come to fetishize their posi­tion as right­eous out­siders and have lost faith in the abil­i­ty to win pow­er at the high­est lev­els. Do we believe that pow­er will be inspired by our brave acts of eschew­ing pow­er?” he prods. Instead, he urges the Left to main­stream the move­ment and embrace power. 

Rules for Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies: How Big Orga­niz­ing Can Change Every­thing, by for­mer Bernie cam­paign staffers and long­time orga­niz­ers Becky Bond and Zack Exley, takes up a sim­i­lar call to aim big. Their book also offers per­haps the most thor­ough account to date of Bernie Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial bid, with fas­ci­nat­ing insights for those itch­ing for a behind-the-scenes look.

Chap­ters break down key lessons into bul­let points and avoid high­mind­ed jar­gon. The style is meant to allow read­ers — espe­cial­ly orga­niz­ers — to put the best pieces of the Sanders cam­paign to work in oth­er con­texts while avoid­ing its mis­steps. Bernie missed a cru­cial ear­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty to put race at the cen­ter of the mes­sage to every­one,” Bond writes. It was a fail­ure that con­tin­ued to dam­age his abil­i­ty to bring every­one togeth­er around a rad­i­cal agenda.”

But Bond and Exley believe the pri­maries offer an empow­er­ing mod­el for oth­er pro­gres­sive work. Small-donor fundrais­ing and big asks — com­ple­ment­ed by a capa­ble vol­un­teer infra­struc­ture — can bring the seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble (say, a grumpy social­ist sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an becom­ing pres­i­dent) into the realm of the possible.

For Jane McAlevey, how­ev­er, an SEIU high­er-up-turned-crit­ic and author of No Short­cuts: Orga­niz­ing for Pow­er in the New Gild­ed Age, this kind of big orga­niz­ing,” intend­ed to scale up quick­ly and change nation­al con­ver­sa­tions, stands at odds with the kind of deep lead­er­ship devel­op­ment need­ed to trans­form work­places and com­mu­ni­ties over the long haul. She empha­sizes the need to return to the rank-and-file orga­niz­ing that char­ac­ter­ized the height of the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions (CIO) in the 1930s and 1940s, which won pol­i­cy changes that enabled wide­spread union­iza­tion and put America’s entire work­ing class on stronger footing.

Think­ing of these books’ approach­es as tools — not diver­gent world­views — allows us to see where they com­ple­ment rather than con­tra­dict. There is a direct and pro­found rela­tion­ship between lead­er­ship iden­ti­fi­ca­tion … and build­ing pow­er­ful mass-scale move­ments,” McAlevey writes in her intro­duc­tion, a sen­ti­ment echoed in Rules for Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. Each of these authors, for instance, would like­ly agree that any move­ment capa­ble of effect­ing largescale change needs to extend beyond self-iden­ti­fied rad­i­cals. Sim­i­lar­ly, each push­es for draw­ing clear dis­tinc­tions between activists (peo­ple who show up) and lead­ers (peo­ple who get oth­er peo­ple to show up), and advo­cates for orga­niz­ers to cre­ate more of the latter.

Soci­ol­o­gist Zeynep Tufekci’s Twit­ter and Tear­gas: The Pow­er and Fragili­ty of Net­worked Protest, an explo­ration of the kinds of decen­tral­ized protests that emerged in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Cairo’s Tahrir Square and New York City’s Zuc­cot­ti Park, also offers insight into the lead­er­ship ques­tion. Although par­tic­i­pa­to­ry lead­er­less­ness and hor­i­zon­tals are a source of strength in some ways, it is also a treach­er­ous path over the long haul,” Tufek­ci warns, crit­i­ciz­ing — as Smuck­er does — a left­ist ten­den­cy to dis­trust for­mal leadership.

One of Tufekci’s great­est con­tri­bu­tions in Twit­ter and Tear Gas is a thor­ough­ly sourced cor­rec­tive to the idea that smart­phones and social media fuel apa­thy. She details the cen­tral role tech­nol­o­gy has played in the resur­gence of glob­al upris­ings, by offer­ing on-ramps to lev­els of engage­ment that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of orga­niz­ers would have envied.

Eric Liu’s You’re More Pow­er­ful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Mak­ing Change Hap­pen feels per­haps the most out of touch with the post-Trump world. He takes the view that ordi­nary cit­i­zens wak­ing up to their own pow­er can tip pow­er away from the haves and toward the have-nots, cit­ing every­thing from #OscarsSoWhite to the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. The assess­ment isn’t wrong on the face of it, and the book includes some ever­green reflec­tions on how pow­er oper­ates, such as that peo­ple con­sent to be gov­erned and can with­draw that con­sent in var­i­ous ways. But in Trump’s Amer­i­ca, it is unlike­ly that the kind of active cit­i­zen­ship” Liu push­es will be enough to stem creep­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism with­out tak­ing on the under­ly­ing eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal fac­tors that led to his rise.

What emerges across the read­ings (save for Liu, per­haps) is a loose out­line of the next Left — the emerg­ing patch­work of move­ments that, in all their com­plex­i­ties and com­pli­ca­tions, will shape the anti-Trump resis­tance. It’s net­worked and tech-savvy, inter­est­ed in dis­rupt­ing busi­ness as usu­al, with a flair for direct action. Its whiter and more main­stream cor­ners are attempt­ing — in fits and starts — to ingest the lessons of fore­bears like the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive, which (as Kauff­man details) cau­tioned against the larg­er-than-life cults of per­son­al­i­ty and white male lead­er­ship that defined the New Left. For any move­ment to suc­ceed in the Unit­ed States, it has to be able to speak authen­ti­cal­ly to the hopes and needs of an extreme­ly diverse and mul­tira­cial country.

In part thanks to the Sanders cam­paign, this next Left is more explic­it­ly inter­est­ed in elec­toral pol­i­tics, and in find­ing a syn­er­gy between the bar­ri­cades and the bal­lot box. As McAlevey makes clear, how­ev­er, it also tends to lack the hard orga­niz­ing skills that have pushed oth­er move­ments — like New Deal-era orga­nized labor — toward suc­cess: build­ing the lead­ers and durable infra­struc­ture that will enable whirl­wind upris­ings to car­ry on.

With the next four years shap­ing up to be some of this country’s longest, the Left will need to relearn some old skills and invent new ones. Thank­ful­ly, more peo­ple than ever are ready to use them

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH