By Joshua Stephens
War Resisters League
With Towards Collective Liberation, veteran activist and writer Chris Crass has filled a number of conspicuous voids in radical literature, seeking to render the aspirations of feminist and antiracist struggle plain, practicable, and their realization imminently possible. Through autobiographical reflections on his early years as an anarchist organizer in San Francisco, a few brief essays, and a series of interviews with key figures in contemporary horizontal organizations, he has crafted what might be the first primer on the intersection of antriracist/feminist politics and anarchism aimed squarely at a white cis-male audience.
While innumerable and notable authors have tackled the corrosive effects of white supremacy and patriarchal relations within radical social movements, and some have even done so with explicit reference to anarchist politics, the literature that has resulted figures as a sort of archipelago of scattered sources—an often daunting or unnavigable card catalog for younger, less-initiated readers. Little in the way of deeply practical, comprehensive introductory writing has been on offer, even as movements on the ground have created a stunning, dynamic body of knowledge around how race, gender, sexuality, and class intersect and collide in organizing. Consequently, less-experienced activists inhabiting positions of privilege often take years to develop any meaningful understanding of the baggage saddling the projects they join, and the ways their own (often subtle) behavior threatens the prospects for genuinely collective liberation.
In Towards Collective Liberation, Crass eschews broad abstractions in favor of case studies, practically daring readers not to see their own experiences reflected in the stories he draws out. San Francisco’s Food Not Bombs’ (FNB) growing pains during the 1990’s figure as the largest of these, comprising nearly half the book. Organizational structure (or a lack thereof), differing strategic visions, and unchecked, entrenched behaviors unfold in Crass’s retelling, yielding scenes likely all too familiar to most anyone who’s spent time in grassroots organizing. What’s most powerful in his approach, however, is his blunt candor about the outcomes—outcomes many will also recognize. For Crass, the composition of our movements, their longevity and sustainability, and their relationships with disproportionately impacted communities are not incomprehensible realities. He walks the reader (sometimes tediously) through an almost forensic account of how FNB found itself at various crossroads, and why.
To say it’s a convincing diagnosis is to considerably understate what Crass accomplishes. It frankly leaves little about which to be convinced. He then swiftly moves through a survey of lessons from antiracist, feminist movement and literature—drawing on everyone from Ella Baker to bell hooks—setting up the ethics, vision, and commitments that animate what amounts to the prescriptive portion of Crass’s work: how to build antiracist and feminist praxis into movement-building work. He accomplishes this through an account of how San Francisco’s Catalyst Project approaches its mission, as well as interviews with contemporary organizers with The Heads Up Collective, Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project, Louisville’s Fairness Campaign, and Wisconsin’s Groundwork Collective.
Throughout the book, Crass is adamant about a pervasive and under-discussed stumbling block: the tendency, on the part of those interrogating and challenging their own racist, sexist socialization, toward self-reference and self-absorption. “Frequently I came across as cold, angry, or self-righteous, none of which were particularly helpful,” he writes. “If my goal was… alleviat[ing] my own guilt and shame for being white and male, then this was perhaps a useful approach… [But] I needed to take time to really understand my motivations. I needed to get grounded in an understanding of my own self-interest in liberation.”
Crass’s earnestness, however, has also yielded a repetition that feels, at times, appropriate only for a high school textbook, assuming a certain lack of comprehension on the part of the reader. For a strictly introductory text, it works; for a more experienced audience, it may prove prohibitive. No favors are done the text by the rather large volume of typographical errors, either (about one per page, including paragraphs that end with commas). Ideas are a matter or content, and here Crass shines—even breaks critical ground. Writing, as vector for making ideas stick, however, still places demands on form. If his readers can forgive on the latter point, they will be rewarded on the former.