Recommended Reading

This page is a collection and categorization of links to all of my favorite writings on politics and organizing.

Anarchism

  • Anarchism is a sub-category of socialism. Those socialists who believe that radical social change can be achieved outside of political parties and government action are anarchists, whereas those socialists that believe in using political parties and government power are technically “state socialists”, but often, and confusingly, the term “socialist” is used as short-hand to refer to state socialists. Instead of the state, anarchists advocate using democratically run, bottom-up institutions in the form of labor unions, community organizations, grassroots social movements, etc… to push for radical change. For more on socialism in general, see the heading below.
  • Radio interview about anarchism with Noam Chomsky.
    • This is the 50-minute video that first introduced me to anarchism and radical politics, and for me it’s still the best and most cogent argument for comprehensive revolutionary change that I’ve come across. Almost every question that someone new to anarchism would have is addressed.
    • I like the audio version myself, but if you prefer to read, this is the transcript.
  • Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, by David Graeber.
    • A 55-page essay that intertwines the history of social science and anarchism, the similarity between imagined anarchist societies and pre-civilized societies, the differences between anarchism and Marxism, and much else related to anthropology and anarchism. (Note: I’m more in line with syndicalist versions of anarchism and social change than Graeber is, but I still think his writings are valuable).
  • Anarchism and the Black Revolution, by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
    • This book touches on a lot of different angles of the anarchist movement and is written by a veteran of both the Civil Rights Movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers. Lorenzo is still organizing and writing to this day.
    • Many who are curious about anarchism initially get frustrated about the lack of a fully-mapped out strategy for transforming society. This book contains one of the more detailed and appealing proposals for such a strategy that I’ve come across.
    • In the second half of the 20th century, anarchism in the US was an almost entirely white movement, often with very limited understandings of the interactions that white supremacy has with capitalism and the state. Written in 1993, this book takes a very critical look at whiteness within the anarchist movement and was a major force in decolonizing the anarchism we know today, though there is still much work to be done.

History

  • A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
    • This is the most canonical and widely read book on radical politics in the US. It’s a history of all the things that happened that were far more important than what presidents did or said, focusing on social movements as the true engine of positive social change.
    • A free html version is available online.
    • While Zinn preferred not to get stuck debating labels, when he did care to self-identify, he called himself an anarchist.

Identity and Oppression Politics

  • The short version of my thoughts on identity politics is that when it’s mixed with liberalism and capitalism, it inevitably reproduces all the problems it’s trying to do away with. But when identity politics is integrated with a critique of capitalism and the state, then it is essential in helping us understand society and in strengthen radical social movements.
  • Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation
    • This piece makes important arguments about how oppression politics play out in social movements, specifically looking at the complex dynamics within Occupy Oakland.
  • Time Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse, by R.L. Stephens II.
    • This post is on how much mainstream discussion around ‘privilege’ focuses on individual self-improvement to the exclusion of a politics of social transformation.
  • Identity Crisis, by Salar Mohandesi.
    • Looks at the history of socialism and identity politics through the lens of the major social movements of the 20th century.
  • Class and Identity: Against Both/And, by Sophia Burns.
    • This piece is about how capitalism and class are so deeply intertwined with oppression (e.g., white supremacy and patriarchy) that it’s impossible to try to fight one without fighting the other. My third piece on liberalism was going to be on this topic, but Burns says here everything I wanted to say in the first place.
  • A Critique of Ally Politics, by M.
    • This post analyzes how when privileged people merely follow oppressed people, they are often wielding power without taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions.
  • Combahee River Collective Statement and Race, Class, and Gender by Selma James
    • These are two canonical historical texts on the relation of race, gender, and class from the 1970s and are worth reading together.

Liberalism

  • What You Need to Know about Liberalism, series by me.
    • Part I: What It’s Made of, What It’s Missing, and What It Means for Organizing
      • This piece constructs a practical definition of liberalism, shows how it manifests itself in society, and looks at how its neglect of an analysis of power leads liberalism to subvert everything it claims to stand for.
    • Part II: Capitalism and the State
      • This piece shows how liberalism subverts everything it claims to stand for through its reliance on capitalism. I’ve not been impressed by introductory pieces on anti-capitalism, so this is my attempt to lay out the basic conceptual foundations of capitalism, why it’s bad, and how it invariably leads to extreme inequality.
  • Why I’m Not a Liberal, by Robin Marie Averbeck, at Jacobin.com
  • Liberalism, by Gerald Gaus, Shane Courtland, and David Schmidtz, at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    • The discourse around liberalism in academia is often very different than the way it manifests in society. My pieces on liberalism rather focus on liberalism as it exists today and how radicals can organize against it. Some philosophical strands of liberalism are much more radical than the mainstream versions and even interpret anarchism and socialism as kinds of liberalism, but this is not the orthodox interpretation. For those interested in the academic treatments on liberalism, they can be informative.

Liberal Institutions

  • Public Education
    • Public K12 Education as a Capitalist Industry: A Political Guide for Radical Educators and Organizers, by me.
      • On the surface public education appears to be immune to the worst parts of capitalism because it is publicly-funded and -run, there’s no profit motive, and there’s no commodity being brought to sale. However, if you dig deeper you discover that all the elements of traditionally capitalist factory production also apply to public education, just in a slightly modified form.
      • While public education holds a special place in the liberal imagination as a great equalizer, it is more often a place of exploitation and oppression. Strife and conflict abound over who will be sorted into the corporate boardroom and who will be sorted into low-waged jobs and prison cells. Which educators will be fired and which will be lucky enough stay around to see their pay cut year after year?
  •  Non-Profits
  •  Prisons
    • Can prison abolition ever be pragmatic? by Nathan J. Robinson, at Current Affairs.
      • The idea that we should get rid of prisons is hard for a lot of people to comprehend. The complexity of the issue is compounded by there not being much good intro content on the subject. And yet, getting rid of prisons is central to the kind of society anarchists want to live in. This is the best introductory article on the prison abolition I’ve come across.
    • NYT profile of prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore and her ideas
      • There is perhaps not a clearer and more penetrating contemporary thinker working on such an important issue as Gilmore. Reading her work, prison abolition sounds not only visionary but also utterly practical and necessary.
  • Police

Organizing and Social Movements

  • The Anatomy of Organizing, Part I and Part II, by me.
  • Base-Building: Activist Networking or Organizing the Unorganized?, by Tim Horras.
  • Spadework, by Alyssa Battistoni.
    • Battistoni recounts her personal growth as an organizer and her experience getting deeply involved in the campaign to unionize grad students at Yale in the mid-2010s. The essay speaks to many of the often hidden but fundamental truths and tensions in organizing.
  • Organizing.Work
    • A blog that’s a collection of workplace organizing stories and theory. Most of the content is directly related to or about the Industrial Workers of the World, which is an anti-capitalist labor union in the US.
    • A couple of my favorite entries are this account of a multi-school sick-out by education assistants in Minneapolis and theoretical piece on “solidarity unionism“.
  • Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransy.
    • This is a biography of the civil rights organizer Ella Baker.  It is my personal bible for grassroots organizing. I think her life’s work organizing on the ground is unparalleled in it’s longevity, attention to strategy, emphasis on bottom-up democracy, and direct action. We don’t hear about her much these days, but I think she’s more important in terms of history and in what can be learned from her life, than Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Hayden, Saul Alinsky, and Malcolm X put together. Baker created and belonged to radical movements on the ground in ways that none of these other figures did. Of her colleague MLK, who she didn’t much get along with, she said, the “movement created Martin, and not Martin the movement.” Baker isn’t exactly an anarchist per se, but many anarchists, like former Black Panther and current anarchist writer and organizer Ashanti Alston, cite Ella Baker as an important influence.
  • I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, by Charles Payne.
    • This is a history of the black freedom movement in Mississippi in the 1960s, particularly the activity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC was in part the child of Ella Baker, and so there’s a lot to be gained from reading this book alongside the Baker biography noted above. This is plainly the most well-written and cogently argued social movement book I’ve ever read, and it contains so many lessons for contemporary organizers. SNCC was the radical and youth wing of the Civil Rights Movement, and they consistently carried out the most risky and highest reward actions and campaigns around the country, starting with the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, then taking rides on interstate buses to protest segregation laws, and, in what was probably their finest moment, the Freedom Summer campaign they carried out in Mississippi. Howard Zinn, one of the chosen “adult advisors” to the group, has called SNCC “anarchist” in orientation because its anti-authoritarian politics. Famous black anarchist Lorenzo Ervin and former Black Panther and SNCC member himself, cites SNCC as a central influence in his life and contrasts its democratic, horizontal leadership model with the top-down authoritarian structure of the Black Panthers. I like to play up the radical credentials of SNCC because I think far too many radicals today wrongly dismiss the Civil Rights Movement altogether in favor of the later radicalism of groups like the Black Panthers. I think radicals would be a lot better at building radical projects instead of just talking about it if they studied groups like SNCC.
  • Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, By Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.
    • One of the seminal texts in the social movement literature, this book argues that movements against economic inequality fail when they focus on electoral politics rather than of disruptive action to meet their goals. The authors make their argument by examining four social movements as case-studies: the movement of the unemployed during the Great Depression, the radical labor movement of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the movement for welfare rights in the 1970s. I remember there being some wacky ideas I disagreed with in the concluding chapter, but the rest of it is gold.
  • Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky.
    • Even though I disagree with half the ideas in this book, I think the other half is quite instructive and occasionally brilliant. Also, because Alinsky has been so influential, it’s worthwhile knowing the ideas of his you do disagree with to be able articulate why you disagree with them when you see them enacted in contemporary organizing. Much of the mainstream model of community organizing used today is primarily influenced by Alinsky and his followers, with all the good and bad that entails. Alinsky is also a really flashy writer, which makes him easier to swallow for new organizers than a lot of other content out there on organizing.
    • For some critiques of Alinsky’s method, check out these articles.
  • No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, by Jane F. McAlevey
    • This book features spot-on arguments about militant union strategy, labor history, and explanations for why today’s labor movement is so drab. Among other things, it breaks down the differences between organizing and mobilizing, and how the former is based in relationships that build power while that latter is based in surface-level protests that rely only on day-of protest numbers and media savvy instead of actual workers.
  • This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, by Mark and Paul Engler
    • This book covers a lot of material about social movement history and dynamics. Of most interest to me was the comparison and contrasting of goal-oriented organizations with specific unified strategies that are active within larger social movements (think SNCC, or the CIO) vs. spontaneous moments in movements with wide public participation where the politics, actions, and strategies are often more diverse and diffuse (think Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter). People in organizations tend to view these more spontaneous upswells as wasteful, lacking direction, and easily dismissed, but this book articulates the value of such moments towards bringing people in and changing popular perceptions more effectively and swiftly than any single organization can. Certainly, these two very different aspects of social movements each have strengths and limitations, but the book explains why it’s a mistake to impose our ideas about one onto our evaluations of the other.
    • The book also contains a history and defense of “strategic nonviolence”, which is a discourse and practice which I think is immensely valuable in many ways but not as universally applicable as the authors and others suppose.

Socialism

  • My piece on Capitalism and the State.
    • Even though this is Part II on a series on liberalism, it is readable as a stand-alone piece on anti-capitalism. Along the way, I show how socialism differs from capitalism and how socialism might look if built from the bottom-up instead from the top-down.
  • Noam Chomsky answering questions about socialism after a talk.
    • This is still to me the best and most clear way to define socialism: “The core of socialism was understood to be workers control over production.” Aka, workers having control of their workplaces, NOT giving control of the economy over to an elitist vanguard party like the Bolsheviks. He talks at length about how Lenin was a “right-wing deviation” of the socialist movement and how Leninism was at its heart an anti-socialist project.
  • What Socialism Means, by Fredrik Deboer, at Cultural Affairs.
    • This is a good, brief introduction to the meaning of socialism and how it differs from the kind of social democracy advocated by people like Bernie Sanders.
  • Socialism as a Set of Principles, by Nathan J. Robinson, at Cultural Affairs
    • This article is about how socialism is less about a rigid blueprint for society and more about the principle of democracy whereby people have the ability to make decisions about policies that affect them. Under capitalism, the core decisions are made not be the people as a whole but by a tiny fraction of those who own capital (aka, the companies, the real estate, etc…)
  • Capitalism Is Collectivism, by Samuel Miller-McDonald, at Cultural Affairs
    • Capitalists like to claim the banner of individualism, but Western mega-corporations are much more authoritarian and demanding of conformity than anything related to socialism.

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