Sep 10

Direct Action

Course Union Organisers’ Handbook [download] (1973) produced by the Ontario Federation of Students

Advice on producing pamphlets: “Don’t write an essay”.

This handbook is a methodical guide from the early 1970s to organizing course unions – committees formed by students on the basis of their academic courses (i.e. Political Science, History, Chemistry) to take action on the quality of education and their lack of involvement in decision-making. Activities include holding regular general meetings, appointing class representatives, organizing course evaluations, alternative educational events, and social events. They also develop demands and apply pressure for their adoption through a combination of public activism and lobbying.

Even though the approach of the handbook is a little too prescriptive for my liking, the framework definitely resonated with my own experiences with student organizing. The section on mass actions also reminded me of how some of my thinking has evolved over time.

“As a last resort, mass actions can be an effective weapon against an unyielding department or university.”

This view of mass or direct action as a “last resort” is rooted in a reformist approach of making small changes while leaving the overall system intact.  It has to be proven (often each time, so ahistorically) that the token measures made available for participation don’t work. Administrators must be shown to be unresponsive and undemocratic. The possibility of goodwill must extinguished, often through betrayal. There are even pessimists who advise going through the motions of each step in order to provide political cover, or a more broadly acceptable rationale, for taking direct action that disrupts day to day business and gets to the heart of the matter.

It reminds me of a joyous scene in The Trotsky (2009) where Jay Baruchel’s character, Leon Bronstein, who believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, goes to the school board as part of his campaign to unionize his high school. Some of his companions are dejected when the school board delivers a negative opinion, but Bronstein is unaffected. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he basically says, we only asked you as a formality, so that we can now begin to rain hellfire down upon you!

In a totally different approach, the folks who organized a Free UofT were not trying to lobby anyone to make reforms, they were actively producing their own vision of free and accessible education, and invited everyone to join them. So in this case, direct action was not a last resort, but desirable and a necessity.

“RTS does not see Direct Action as a last resort, but a preferred way of doing things … a way for individuals to take control of their own lives and environments … If global capitalism does not manage to destroy the ecosphere and human civilization … and a new culture of social and ecological justice is developed, RTS would hope that direct action would not stop but continue to be a central part of a direct democratic system.” (Jordan 1997)

In Richard F. Day, Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (2005)

Strength in numbers little fish vs. big fish graphic

Sep 10

*More* People’s History of UofT

The good folks at CUPE 3902 – the union for teaching assistants and sessional instructors at UofT – shared their poster series on Workers’ History, a complimentary project to the People’s History of UofT posters I helped with.

The first two, which are my favourites, were designed by the people at the Public Studio, a really cool activist-run design studio here in Toronto.

Aug 10


(Left) The people send me to the university, I go to university for the people. Artwork by Yu Dawu; published by People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1976. 106 x 77 cm.

(Right) Work half-time, study half-time. Artwork by Zhao Zheng, Jin Kequan, published by People’s Fine Art Publishing House, 1965. 54 x 77 cm.

From Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins, Chronicle Books, 2007.

Ever since reading Lincoln Cushing’s Agitate! Educate! Organize! American Labor Posters I have been trying to get my hands on all the other books on political posters that he has helped to produce.

His book with Ann Tompkins on Chinese posters is quite good, and I much prefer it to the Prestel edition on Chinese posters, but the state-produced subject matter and style of socialist realism didn’t really connect with me on a political level.

An exception to the rule, the two posters above did resonate with me, perhaps infiltrating through my deep level of disaffection with the education system. The poster entitled The people send me to the university, I go to university for the people touches on my feelings about accountability of the university and its students to the wider community, while the poster Work half-time, study half-time reminds me of the importance of balance and the way that university can be so totalizing, disallowing or disavowing community engagement, and often so inaccessible for working people.

I have encountered similar principles of mutual accountability in articulations of Chicanismo – where Chicanas and Chicanos have committed to holding institutions accountable to the community while also committing to hold themselves accountable by giving back to the community and, in the case of academics, producing work that is actually useful for the community.

After reading this book, I began reading some Mao and came across this passage on “book worship”. Although the intent of the piece is to denounce dogmatism – following orders from above or what is written in a book without question or consideration for context – it is also a critique of a lack of community-engaged practice, or in this case “social investigation”.

“Oppose Book Worship” by Mao Zedong (1930)

To carry out a directive of a higher organ blindly [sic], and seemingly without any disagreement, is not really to carry it out but is the most artful way of opposing or sabotaging it.

The method of studying the social sciences exclusively from the book is likewise extremely dangerous and may even lead one onto the road of counter-revolution. Clear proof of this is provided by the fact that whole batches of Chinese Communists who confined themselves to books in their study of the social sciences have turned into counter-revolutionaries. When we say Marxism is correct, it is certainly not because Marx was a “prophet” but because his theory has been proved correct in our practice and in our struggle. We need Marxism in our struggle. In our acceptance of his theory no such formalisation of mystical notion as that of “prophecy” ever enters our minds. Many who have read Marxist books have become renegades from the revolution, whereas illiterate workers often grasp Marxism very well. Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation.

How can we overcome book worship? The only way is to investigate the actual situation.

(Bottom) Modern revolutionary dance play: White Haired Woman. Artist unknown; published by Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1972. 53 x 77cm.