Study for Struggle: Weaponizing Theory for the Fights Ahead

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Rachel Herzing & Isaac Ontiveros*

The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States set off a chain reaction among Left organizers and activists across the country. The responses were immediate and forceful. Disbelief was one of the primary reactions we witnessed via social media, informal conversations, and in-person meetings. Many people expressed grief and despair. Others, fear and dread. Still others, anger and outrage. And still others said, “I told you so.” Many took to the streets to express themselves collectively in what was sometimes a cacophony of perspectives and voices.

Nearly as immediately, we saw the release of platforms and statements. We received notices about online fora, trainings, and presentations. We heard about community meetings covering everything from strategies for making one’s church, campus, etc. a sanctuary space, to ways to protect organizers and activists from increased surveillance, to strategy sessions preparing for the 2018 elections.

In the wake of November 8th’s result, at the Center for Political Education we scoured the news, participated in online and in-person community meetings, and set ourselves to studying the range of post-election analysis circulating. We also met one-on-one with local community and political organizations to understand their current campaigns and projects, political education programs and needs, and to continue our ongoing work of understanding how we might support local groups to apply strong theory and analysis to their work on the ground. That ongoing effort has been strongly affected by the reactions of our community partners to what they see as the shifting context in the post-election era.

Many of our comrades and allies, and the communities with which they work, are spinning. Some are fearful of mass deportations, a Muslim registry, the repression of dissent and the expansion of surveillance apparatuses, and the rollback of gains made in recent years. Some are forecasting and preparing for the rise of fascism, the Alt-Right, militias and vigilantism, and the evisceration of social safety nets that have offered the slimmest relief for poor and working class communities and communities of color in both urban and rural areas. Still others are worried about environmental calamity, increased privatization, isolationism, and increased hostilities with international players. Many of our partners are also springing into action to analyze the conditions, plan strategies, and shore up defenses.

In considering the landscape on which the Left will organize, a series of questions emerge. Who is the Left being used as the point of reference here? In assessing what the Left should do, who the Left should mobilize, or how it should increase its ranks, what is the starting place for forging alliances and alignment? This question seems particularly pertinent given a steady stream of exhortations to expand our bases and forge alliances and coalitions with workers, liberals, or Democratic centrists. But with whom do we understand ourselves to be beginning these building efforts? What steps should be taken to align our understandings of the current context, goals about priority targets, and the best means and timeframes in which to attempt to shift power? While certainly this is a unique period in some senses, what lessons could be drawn from history to inform how we fight tomorrow? What are the best tools to apply toward these ends?

In our own reflection at the Center for Political Education, we found ourselves asking, will the Trump regime affect people’s abilities to think clearly? Will the fear so many are expressing about what will happen under the Trump administration lead to retreat and paralysis? Will it ignite frenetic activity that cuts corners on rigorous analysis in favor of rapid action? How may we best balance people’s real sense of fear and urgency with the need for methodical, rigorous analysis and strategic thinking? What roles are we carving out for ideological and political struggle as we strive to develop collective understandings of who we are, what we’re up against, and how best to fight back?

During the 1966 Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Amilcar Cabral made his famous Weapon of Theory speech. As some have noted, Cabral put forward a forceful argument that the struggle for national liberation against the devastation wrought by colonialism and imperialism was a struggle for history itself: an active historical understanding of their conditions allowed the oppressed not only to overturn the racist mythology proclaiming they had no history, but also to forcefully carve out an understanding of themselves as protagonists of a freedom struggle in the present, and as architects of a liberated future. Of course, this would not be easy. As Cabral (1966) put it:

The ideological deficiency, not to say the total lack of ideology, within the national liberation movements—which is basically due to ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform—constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all.

In reflecting on this moment, we think it is useful to re-engage with similar challenges and questions, albeit in markedly different conditions. How do we build and use weapons of theory? How do we create lasting environments in which people can put their creative energies to use, forging and testing conceptions of how to “produce and make history”? We can start by drawing lessons from how social movement–affiliated education projects responded to crises in other periods. The Highlander Folk School, for instance, started in the wake of the Scottsborough Boys arrests and militant labor upheaval and repression in the region. The Highlander Folk School, and later the Highlander Research and Education Center, was also a key resource for civil rights activists and organizations and played a pivotal role as a strategic incubator of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in the founding of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During a period in which Black people faced intense repression, violence, and intimidation for attempting to register and vote, Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools extended the work of Highlander outward from the physical space of the school and were an essential (and often clandestine) vehicle in helping people meet the literacy tests required to vote, while also teaching politics and organizing.

During the ensuing decades, civil rights and liberation struggles of oppressed people in the United States increasingly drew a common cause and shared fate with Third World liberation struggles across the globe. Countless progressive, radical, and revolutionary organizations wove intensive studies and analyses of political theory and practice into their organizing work—often drawing from the theoretical engagements, elaborations, and struggles of liberation organizations worldwide. Indeed, the struggle for education as liberation drove Third World students to carve out spaces for workers and people of color on campuses across the United States, leading to the founding of Ethnic Studies as a recognized academic discipline (a struggle which continues to this day). Amidst the lethal backlash against liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the Brecht Forum in New York City emerged in part from collaborative work for Puerto Rican independence. The Brecht Forum became an important vehicle for Left learning, strategy, and struggle in the 1980s, and more recently as a place for thinking and strategizing during the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy movement.

Several organizations, including the Highlander Center and our own Center for Political Education, have joined other powerful education resources across the US and the world in continuing to provide spaces for study, reflection, analysis, and strategy. These kinds of spaces are more crucial than ever to understand our movements, to analyze our conditions, and to prepare to fight back. Returning to Weapon of Theory, Cabral reminds us that “every practice produces a theory,” and that “nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory.” More than six decades before Cabral’s speech at the 1966 Tricontinental Conference, V.I. Lenin (1902/1993), writing from within a movement facing intense state repression, offered a similar analysis in What Is to Be Done? He averred that theory was an indispensable guard against “the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

The rise of Trump and the onslaughts he has promised to unleash are matters of dire urgency. There is no doubt that social change organizations should be taking up practical activities to protect themselves and their communities while building resistance and shifting power. The urgency that surrounds and compels us may discourage us from pausing to think deeply and rigorously. However, our ability to fight for the long haul depends on this deep thinking. Creating, valuing, and nurturing durable and thoughtful spaces for developing praxis in direct response to our times, places, conditions, and abilities is critically important as we face the perils that surely lie ahead. Now more than ever, we must understand that theory and analysis are crucial weapons, rather than things we don’t have time for.

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References and Further Readings
Cabral, Amilcar. 1966. “The Weapon of Theory.” Speech delivered to the Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Havana, Cuba.
Lenin, V.I. 1902/1993. What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. New York: International Publishers. 11th ed.

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* Rachel Herzing and Isaac Ontiveros are codirectors of The Center for Political Education, a resource for political organizations on the Left, progressive social movements, the working class, and people of color in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Header image (left) by Joe Brusky, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.

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