‘Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements’ reviewed by Jasper Finkeldey

Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements

University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2015. 216pp., $29.95 pb.
ISBN 9781442607903

Reviewed by Jasper Finkeldey

About the reviewer

Jasper Finkeldey is a PhD researcher from the University of Essex focusing on the social and …


In academic conferences about social movements there is often some initial underlying discomfort among participants. ‘Actually’, participants think privately, ‘activism cannot be studied appropriately from within the walls of the academy’. When the first keynote speakers present evocative formulas for the study of the activist world, most participants start to relax. The real stuff might be happening on the streets, in teach-in, protest camps, and in occupied spaces. Academics, however, know how to make sense of this mess. Learning Activism is a forceful attempt to remind scholars of their initial discomfort. What if studying activism from within the university only satisfies the academic imperative to be recognized by peers? What if the activist world cares as little about academic journal articles and conferences as scholars who claim to know what really happens in social movements? 

Globetrotting scholar-activist Aziz Choudry’s Learning Activism looks at the way activist groups learn, and how scholars might learn from them. The author analyses and explains the ‘power of the worldviews generated through projects of change’ (8). Choudry’s book brings into conversation academic literature with first-hand activist experience, and challenges the idea that learning can only take place within universities or schools. Choudry encourages the reader to think about knowledge as informed by ‘real, material experiences’ outside formal educational institutions (33). This is very much reflected in the author’s personal activist history that he shares with the reader in the preface. Applying for an academic position at a university in Canada, Choudry had no university degree, but he two decades of experience within social movements and an actual suitcase full of activist material that he had produced during this period. As we learn, he got the job regardless. Choudry thus intends to collapse what he calls the ‘false disconnect’ of academic theorizing in the armchair from activist practice (37). 

In chapter one Choudry sets the stage for his inquiry into questions of learning and knowledge production in social movements. The main adversary that Choudry targets throughout the book is capital and its colonial accomplices. Hence, an important challenge for activists then becomes to ‘uncover, explain, explore, and analyze the ways in which capitalist relations – through global and local institutions, corporations, financial instruments, processes, and policies – shape our lives and those of others with whom we share the planet’ (19). Capitalism in its neoliberal variant has – according to Choudry – managed to atomize collectivities and successfully called for entrepreneurial subjects pitted against each other through ever-fiercer competition. Reaganomics and Thatcherism have impacted negatively on the way social movements were able to attract followers, and made it ever harder to keep social movements moving. The use of history as a repository for emancipatory struggles is one crucial counter-strategy proposed by the author. This would help movements to see ‘the bigger picture’ and understand how their social struggles are intimately connected to past ones. For instance, he highlights how Frantz Fanon’s critique of post-colonial elites resonates with ‘friends and comrades in South Africa’ (28). Interestingly, he situates historical consciousness of movements not only in written history, but emphasizes the role protest songs and poems can play in movements’ collective memories. For instance,

South Africa’s Miriam Makeba sang searing songs like “Soweto Blues,” reminding the world about the June 1976 Soweto uprising when thousands of Black students rose up against apartheid government decree that made Afrikaans the medium of school instruction and where many were brutally massacred by police (27).

Chapter two engages with the literature on social movement theory. Choudry contends that there is a tendency among social movement scholars to treat social movements as mere objects of their inquiry. The thing-like treatment of movement obstructs the inherently dynamic character of forms of learning and knowledge production in social movements. While proponents of resource mobilization theory (RMT) would overemphasize movements’ rational agency, new social movement theory (NSM) would focus too much on middle-class politics in post-industrial societies. According to the author, both approaches share a lack of critical class and race analysis that should be at the heart of social movement theorizing. Standard social movement theory would be too committed to academic circles while being too far removed from social movements activism. Choudry observes a mutual avoidance given that activists would hardly ever read sociological social movement literature. Movement scholars should therefore be reminded that: ‘[c]loseness to a movement (or cause) and analytic distance need not be mutually exclusive’ (60). 

Towards the end of the chapter, Choudry discusses what he calls the multiple myths of ‘big books, great leaders, high priests, and superstar activists’ (74). These are ‘tales of strong, charismatic, individuals, smart authors, and great ideas’ (75) that were able to make a significant impact. This shows Choudry’s commitment to horizontalism, but point towards a potential pitfall as well. Personally, I find the critique of great books and authors too sweeping and its underlying analysis too narrow. Choudry has no time for the scholastic glitter of big books on social movements. These big ideas would supposedly gloss over the everyday struggles activists find themselves in. One might ask whether his aversion of ‘big books’ might conflict with his professed commitment to Marx’s ideas in several passages of Choudry’s book.

He lauds the ‘antidotes’; embedded scholars pursuing grounded approaches (75). What this suggests is that books about social movement should ultimately be written by scholars who have taken part in these movements or at least spent a considerable time with them. However, there are reasons why I think this does not always need to be the case. Apart from historical accounts where the embedded approach faces obvious obstacles, there are other good reasons for less embedded big books. The latter genre simply reaches another audience. Take for example Naomi Klein’s This changes everything. Klein makes a strong case for her left-liberal middle class readership to start getting tougher on big fossil fuel companies. She highlights the necessity to get active. This does not preclude grassroots activists to stay tuned to their movement building. What this big book however does is that it contextualizes the threats of climate change while possibly making people who would otherwise not necessarily join social movements get going. Klein’s book can help strengthen the case of global climate justice movements. Well-written books with wide audiences might even be the glue between distant struggles – David Harvey’s Rebel Cities might be an example of this.

Chapter three problematizes the boundary between formal and informal learning. The following chapter then provides examples of activist research and practice in formal and informal settings. According to the author, political activity and collective, informal learning rather than directed education is the key to build up incremental activist knowledge. Choudry, reflecting on the ideal learning situation writes: ‘You are meant to be a resource person, expert, instructor, or workshop facilitator, but you feel it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not’ (89-90). His horizontal approach puts into question the very distinction between educator and learner.

Encounters with state authorities provide intense learning experiences for activists. Choudry advances that police raids, crackdowns on peaceful marches, and other repressive encounters teach activists about the nature of state power. He recounts a number of incidences from his personal history in which the police overstepped lawful measures to surveil and repress his engagement with different activist groups. Choudry finds that formally democratic states are sometimes deceptive in that repression is not generally expected of them.

An important question for Choudry then becomes how learning processes can be processed and rendered useful for activist groups. Again, Choudry builds on his own experiences from within activist groups as well as on his activist scholarship from within academia. However, voices of activist from the Philippines, North America, Britain, and South Africa are really the main sources in chapter four. Choudry observes that research, contrary to common knowledge, is part and parcel of many activist organizations. As one of Choudry’s Philipino interviewees says:

getting the attention of people that you are targeting would be … difficult because they could easily have dismissed activist groups [like] us as propaganda. But if you are able to back it up with solid research, you’re able to cite experiences and macro data … then they will be forced to engage with you and you will be able to influence public opinion (136).

In order to be properly informed and to legitimize their actions, activists have a very intimate relation to research. Their research informs members of the movement about the wider implications of their activism and backs up claims made to persuade the public. Hence activists relate to research in a very organic manner. Social movement scholars then, instead of theorizing on activists from a distance, should make more efforts to understand the micro-processes of learning from within these movements.

Finally, Choudry forcefully criticizes elite NGO representatives speaking on behalf of grassroots organizations. This ties in with his scepticism towards ‘big ideas’. Ultimately, change would come from ‘ordinary people’ (172). Throughout the book Choudry persuasively makes a case for organizing movements horizontally. Truly democratic learning would need to break the chains of the narrow confines of higher educational institutions. At the same time, Choudry shows great scepticism towards the potential of activist scholars to contribute to activist learning. Too few scholars would bother to engage with social movements and most of the rest fail to co-create their scholarship with movements. Good activist research should ultimately benefit activist groups. In this spirit, Choudry walks the walk, as all his royalties from the book go to the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal.

 Choudry’s book carries great authority as it stems from his more than twenty years in activist organizations around the globe. The author takes the reader on a fascinating journey to different emancipatory movements on five different continents. Particularly intriguing is his analysis of gatherings, arts and poetry as form of collective activist learning. Putting into doubt the mobilizing factor of dry NGO leaflets and academic publications, Choudry convincingly points his (most likely academic) audience to the force of non-written material. He challenges social movement research to think outside the box and opens potential avenues for fruitful interaction between activist scholars and activist organizations. Choudry encourages scholars to move closer to activists in order to understand the complex ways knowledge is created in action. As a result, this is an excellent read for scholars and activists alike.

12 June 2016

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