How to Write Social Movement Literature

How to Write Social Movement Literature

If there’s one word I never want to hear in a major news story ever again, it’s “antifa.” Part of this is because of the massive conspiracy infrastructure the right has built around it. It has created a new incarnation of an earlier Cold War panic blaming just about every social ill on balaclava-adorned opponents disrupting Proud Boy rallies. But it’s also because of the endless parade of “explainer” articles and op-eds reducing antifascism to the lowest common denominator, usually inspired by the laudable goal of insulating activists from spurious claims lobbed by conservatives looking to defend the white nationalists in their base.

Part of why this has become a somewhat tired affair is that it has flattened all antifascism to a singular image: young anarchists (usually white), dressed for the black bloc, discharging some neo-Nazi leader with a punch, the utility of which must be defended. This is not without reality. There is a long and effective history of what we could fairly call “militant antifascist” groups (the more correct definition of the term antifa) and it traces back decades as a staple inside of the trans-national radical left. From white nationalist groups like Volksfront, various Klan revivals, the Creativity Movement and the alt-right, antifa has arguably done exactly what it said it would do: it severely hindered white nationalism by disrupting their ability to function, recruit and reproduce.

There are also complicated critiques of the different tactics antifascists have used, and counter-strategies that people have employed such as street theater, community preparedness training and counter-messaging. Antifascism is far from a monolith, it is a growing social movement with different branches, approaches and internal critiques, and it includes people who are desperately trying to break new strategic ground. Activists have spent the last few years adapting to the threat posed by the far-right. And today, looking back at those experiences, there are powerful reflections about what the future of antifascism could look like.

It’s not the celebration of militant antifascism that is the problem, but that this singular portrayal inherently limits our view of the movement’s possibilities. Antifascism is not composed only of these well trained, insular radical crews, but includes expansive and overlapping coalitions, often adding weight to the direct action component or multiplying the number of available strategies. Antifascism has been a necessary and permanent piece of the left since World War II, when the horrors of fascism were answered by the refrain “never again,” and the way these antifascisms emerged has been just as diverse and varied as the communities that created them.

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The goal of my recent anthology book “No Pasaran: Antifascist Dispatches from a World in Crisis” was to capture a small sliver of that diversity and to open up what is called antifascism, which will hopefully give us a bit of a vision for what comes next as we move past Trumpism, the alt-right and the white nationalism of decades past. In doing this, the hope was to empower underrepresented voices so that we could get a “people’s history of antifascism,” which is a mission that a lot of histories of radical movements aim for yet fail to achieve. By staking out a clear picture of what needed to be captured in this book we tried to provide a blueprint for what elements can make a social movement history more dynamic, one that makes an intentional effort to welcome new voices and to rethink the very assumptions of how we characterize activism.

In doing so, a few key strategies for writing movement histories emerged. They hopefully provide lessons beyond simply telling the story of antifascism. Instead, they are a glimpse of how to chronicle accessible and dependable movement histories, ones that are embedded in the struggles they wish to document and see this kind of journalism and scholarship as a piece of the movement itself.

  1. Don’t just include diverse voices, find a way to get them in the book. Many people who are organizers do not spend their time in scholarly research or as professional journalists, so writing might not be something they have as much of a background with. Most working class people are also without the free time that many tenured university faculty have, so their availability may be sparse. All of this is to say that simply asking someone to write a chapter or provide extensive research may be impractical, and so you need to work with them to find a way to get their voices into the book. Unless you find a way to support diverse writers in your book, you are not actually doing the work of empowering diverse writers.

Several of the organizers we wanted to feature in “No Pasaran” had work, family and health commitments that were taking their time, so we shifted their chapters to being interviews that I worked with them on as editors. You can turn chapters into roundtables, record discussions and turn them into essays, use a mix of existing and primary sources, and other creative ways of getting a piece of writing that carries the voice of the people you want the book to be built around.

  1. Listen to what contributors and affected people actually want to write about. If I impose my solitary vision of antifascism on this history then it would have an inherently limited viewpoint. To avoid that, we had each contributor write “whatever they wanted,” basically saying that they should contribute what they feel like needs to be said, what they felt empowered to do, and to have influence in how the process progressed. This created an organic system that allowed those involved to drive the direction of the project as a whole. Because of that we have chapters that grew out of lived experiences rather than reproducing a singular narrative projected onto multiple contributors.
  2. Antifascism is not just antifascism. No social movement exists in isolation, and you have to ask how other social movements exist in relationship to the one you’re covering. Antifascism depends on mutual aid to support itself for social reproduction. Its coalitions are built around organized labor, tenants unions, local antiracist groups, church and faith organizations and more, so you need your history to reflect those movements as well. The space around antifascism is part of how to expand the story of what that term means and to provide a more compelling vision of the future, so you need to start pushing past the boundaries you place on the movement you claim to be representing. We looked at how antifascism relates to police and prison abolition, art and music, and other social movements, all of which reveals that no social movement is cut off from all others. Everything is connected.
  3. Allow for disagreement. I don’t agree with everything in every chapter in “No Pasaran,” and some opinions run in total contrast to one another. Just like in a meeting room where activists plan a protest, a diverse and representative collection of voices are going to express near constant disagreement with each other. Such is the reality of direct democracy. This should not just be accommodated, it needs to be actively sought out, and it is what elevates the project to a real documentary movement history.
  4. Pay people. This may seem obvious, but in radical publishing it is not. For most people publishing books with radical presses, book advances are small when they are available at all. There certainly is not enough money available to pay contributors to a large anthology (we have nearly 30 people in this book), so you need to think outside of the existing publishing model to figure this out.

We used a moderate crowdfunding campaign supported by the Institute for Anarchist Studies, which raised enough for small stipends for all contributors. They were not significant amounts of money, but they were a start, and they are what people often need to take time away from the rest of their lives to contribute to building histories.

So think about how you can build a financial infrastructure, however modest, that will support this kind of work. This is a two-way road: we also need to start contributing to projects like these as donors as well, otherwise we cannot expect that these media projects will attract anything other than those with the financial privilege to participate.

  1. Drop the academic tone. It’s great to have movement scholarship with really biting analysis, research and dependable claims. But you should not have simply one type of contribution because that limits both who can contribute and who can read it. Try to include stories, interviews, conversations, poems, fiction, art, comics and anything that authentically reveals the perspective of the people you want to see reflected in its pages. For our part, we tried to open this up as much as possible and have a lot of contributions that feel far outside what you normally find in academic-adjacent works that focus on names and dates often at the expense of people’s hearts. It’s important to simply mix it up, so don’t just strive for demographic diversity, but diversity in style.
  2. Consider how your history can be used in movement building. When putting this book together, we preferred contributions that could actually give real world tools to organizers doing the work. We have thought about how book events can also be movement spaces, and how we can connect on-the-ground struggles with this volume. Consider a strategy for the history you are creating itself and figure out how it can be a support to the organizing your text reflects, and keep your book in conversation with those people doing the work day in and day out.
    Some things should go without saying, like including diverse experiences and identities, letting marginalized voices speak first, and focusing on the experiences of those facing oppression rather than simply uncritically reproducing the opinions of their oppressors. By focusing on antifascism, you actually do tell the story of white nationalism itself, but you do it from the standpoint of resistance. So part of what we do when we tell a “people’s history” is we talk about the entire history of our community, but we preference our own experiences and our quest to make our communities a more liberated space. By “taking our own side” we tell an authentically emotive story that destroys the popular narratives, usually written from the perspective of the powerful, and we put it back into the hands of the people who actually make that history: the everyday people who choose to resist and to make a better world for all of us.