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The path to power: ‘Let’s commit to the long haul’

April 20, 2016

The following discussion of strategy for social change, by Umair Muhammad, was first published under the title “An Altered Position,” as an afterword to the second edition of his book Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism.

Umair launchBy Umair Muhammad. During the summer of 2014 I became involved in an anti-pipeline campaign in Toronto. Part of the campaign against the oil pipeline involved occupying worksites. I myself was able to take part in two such occupations. The first occupation resulted in a one-day stoppage of work. The second stopped work for at least two days and resulted in work equipment being carried offsite. The occupations were in part meant to serve as precursors for larger actions to come, allowing the activists involved to build links and gain experience.

The campaign involved dozens of committed activists. Many other tactics aside from the occupations were used, including pressuring politicians, hosting public education events and getting the media to cover the issue. The delays caused by the campaign reportedly resulted in costs amounting to $100 million to the pipeline company. But the project remained on course. Moreover, the wider goal of drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels was not nearer in sight.

Involvement in the anti-pipeline campaign helped me to see that while we were good at organizing efforts against particular harmful projects and initiatives, we did not have a broader strategy for seeking change. During the occupations I took part in, in thinking about what we were up to, much of the time my thoughts were on a part of Howard Zinn’s You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. In the autobiographical book, Zinn writes about becoming involved in a large antiwar demonstration in 1971 in Washington, DC. The twenty thousand protesters who were present gave themselves the task of “shutting down the city.” The protestors broke themselves up into affinity groups, each deciding its own method of contributing to the goal. “The idea was to avoid centralized, bureaucratic organization.”

Umair Muhammad

Umair Muhammad

As part of one affinity group, Zinn, along with Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, and several other unlikely candidates for the activity, played a game of cat and mouse with police while trying to stop traffic. Reflecting on what they managed to achieve that day, Zinn wrote: “Truth is, symbolic actions (we were not accomplishing anything by blocking the street) always feel a little bit bizarre.” Anyone who has taken part in demonstrations, blockades and occupations has at times surely been confronted with similar feelings.

I was also thinking about Gandhism during the occupations. Direct action of the kind we were engaged in has come to be closely associated with the legacy of the wise Mahatma. As is well known, Gandhi’s efforts to win India’s independence from Britain often took the form of nonviolent civil disobedience, of which the 1930 Salt March is perhaps the most widely known example.

By contrast, little known or talked about are his (likely more important) efforts to shape the Indian National Congress into a political party that could lead the country to independence and be prepared to govern it afterwards. Gandhi, writes the historian Perry Anderson, “was a first-class organizer and fund-raiser — diligent, efficient, meticulous — who rebuilt Congress from top to bottom, endowing it with a permanent executive at national level, vernacular units at provincial level, local bases at district level, and delegates proportionate to population, not to speak of an ample treasury.” Crucial to Gandhi’s program of reforming Congress was its transformation from a party of Indian liberal elites into one that was in touch with the masses.

About the misgivings one should have of what Congress was (and especially what it would turn into), a considerable amount could be said. But without Congress, or something like it, independence for India would not have been forthcoming. The campaigns of mass civil disobedience led by Gandhi would not have been able to secure freedom on their own. Congress provided a forum to have debates and discussions, attract and produce leaders, fashion collective positions on issues of concern, and vie for increasing amounts of influence and power.

The role of Congress in the struggle for Indian independence is an important consideration in a time like ours, when all we seem to have on hand in fighting for change (particularly in the case of North America) are marches, demonstrations, blockades and occupations, sprinkled in among always-ongoing public education efforts.

Our situation is in many ways very different from the India of Gandhi’s time. India was then an underdeveloped country under the direct colonial rule of a geographically far-off nation. We in North America today live in the wealthiest societies that have ever existed and are trying to overcome oppressions that do not have as clearly obvious solutions as kicking out a far-off occupying power. Differences such as these should make it clear that we cannot simply copy the approaches that worked in a particular place at a particular time. But by no means can we completely disregard the lessons of past struggles. One of these lessons, surely, is that political parties are important.

The revolutionary writer and artist William Morris once proclaimed that “if our ideas of a new Society are anything more than a dream … three qualities must animate the due effective majority of the working people; and then, I say, the thing will be done.” The three qualities Morris had in mind were “intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, and power enough to compel.” The last of these, power enough to compel, hardly ever seems to be a consideration of activists today. The fact that power, and indeed compulsion, will be required to reorder society seems a wholly suspect idea to us.

Power: that is the thing that the people in charge have, is it not? And will we not be just like them if we were to have it? All of this tepidness about power is not helped by the fact that we live in a time when practically anything that could involve centralization and hierarchy is equated with elitist vanguardism. The fact remains, however, whatever the antihierarchical, anticentralization, and anticompulsion biases of modern activism may be, we are going to have to take power in order to get done what we need.

Ultimately, we have to overcome the workshop and protest models of activism that have become entrenched in our time. Rather than continuing to just rely on sporadic flare-ups to create change, we are called on to work with institutional forms that can deliver protracted challenges to the status quo in pushing for progressive change. This point, it should perhaps be emphasized, is the crux of my altered position. A multitude of local, grassroots efforts will not come together on their own to create a greater whole. We have to create organizational formations that can help to coordinate such efforts across geographical space and over long periods of time.

Protests, marches, and direct actions need not to be put on hold, but they do need to be supplemented with organization-building. One thing we learn from past efforts to build mass, democratic political parties is that such things take time. The urgency of the environmental crisis perhaps makes us unwilling to put energy into efforts that have long gestation periods. There does not seem to be a way around it, however. We are just going to have to commit to being in this for the slow and long haul.

Copyright © 2014 Umair Muhammad. A student of political science at York University, Umair is a prominent Toronto social activist and a member of Jane-Finch Action Against Poverty. The new edition of his book is available from Haymarket Books. Click here for my review of the first edition.

Both Umair and I have been active in the Toronto-area movement against a proposed tar-sands pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 9. For a snapshot of my involvement, see “No thanks, Enbridge: Line 9 refit is all pain, no gain.” For current coverage, see – John Riddell



  1. Felipe Stuart C. permalink

    Here is a work from a social activist and strategist that merits the widest circulation and discuussion. It addresses key strategic issues facing not just the climate justice movements but all movements for social justice and peace, struggling in a world crushed down by oppression, exploitation, imperialist wars, and assaults on mother Earth. Congratulations Umair Muhammad. May your book and your “altered position” flower and prosper!

    Felipe Stuart C.
    Siempre Sandinista

  2. Ken Hiebert permalink

    In general I agree. But we must be aware that sometimes people newly drawn into the struggle will be puzzled by a pace that seems slow and deliberate. There can be a tension between our long term commitment and the urgency felt by people we come into contact with.

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