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For a Democratic Vision to Fight Empire

Chris Crass
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

How do we use the Presidential election to not only advance our politics and build our organizations and movements, but also deliver a measurable blow to US imperialist power? This is the question I hear over and over again.

Our role as revolutionaries, as always, is to connect the issues, connect the opposition on different fronts, and help develop an analysis in the movement of the system that we are up against. Our role is to help build and strengthen organizations, as well as deepen the understanding of the history and power of social movements to advance justice and liberation. Along these lines, radicals have been developing strategies to defeat Bush.

These strategies as developed by groups like argue that our primary task is to simultaneously get out the vote, deepen people’s understanding of Bush as part of a broader system, and offer concrete opportunities for political engagement and activism that extend beyond the election.

A big part of this strategy rests on the story we are constructing to understand our actions. A story where defeating Bush is only part of the ongoing struggle to defeat imperialism and to further justice and genuine democracy. The story isn’t that hard for most of us as it is how we orient ourselves to the day-to-day struggles we’re involved in.

The corporate media tells a story about us as well. A story about “protestors” standing outside complaining while “the rest of us try to live and improve our lives.” As much as I detest that image, it has deeply narrowed my ability to think of our role as builders, shapers, leaders, participants, supporters and organizers of the logics, practices, structures, cultures and relationships of the societies we are working to live in.

Because this Presidential election carries so much weight in the world and has galvanized our movement to think about strategy on a national level, the story we are creating about ourselves is crucial. There are two essential factors in our story I want to highlight. These are opportunities for growth and development in our movement. Opportunities that can make us stronger regardless of who wins the election.

Collective capacity

The first factor is the challenge to believe in our ability to truly play meaningful roles in this story, to believe in our collective capacity to not just tear down this empire and challenge all illegitimate authority, but to actively build legitimate power that is the basis for self-determination.

We are a left that is beaten down by the power of imperialism that creates the narrative of “this is how it always has been and always will.” We’ve been beaten down by the historic failures of left politics – socialist, communist and anarchist – to actually build new societies. Additionally, our collective memories of meaningful resistance and actual victories have been murdered over and over again. The trauma of real state repression is passed on from generation to generation. Who are we to be trusted and believed in, let alone have real world solutions to the injustices of empire?

I know that we have libraries packed with history to revive memory. I know that many of us are making real differences in the world everyday. I’m talking about when we look deep into our souls and ask the hard questions. Calls for unity and strength in public will not heal us until we believe that we deserve to heal and that we have the collective ability to do so.

The second factor is who is at the center of our story. It’s key for me as a white middle class activist to remember that social movements from communities of color and working class communities in the Global South and in the United States are at the center of the story of empire vs. democracy.

These movements are at the center not because they are faultless, better individuals or because white people and middle class people can’t play leadership roles. These movements are at the center because they are overwhelmingly in the most exploited positions in the empire and have helped to provide realistic and revolutionary vision and strategies.

The current empire is the result of Western European and US ruling classes that have systematically divided oppressed people, won loyalty through the granting of privileges, and maintained effective domination in their own countries and around the world.

In the United States the ideals of democracy have been fundamental to both legitimate resistance and expanding empire. The rights of citizenship have been a primary site of struggle, as well as a powerful tool for the ruling class.

Defining reality

When the masters of the slave society feared insurrection by indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans, citizenship was used to divide the exploited. Rights granted to newly racialized “white” men cemented alliances between white people of all classes to the agenda of the ruling class in opposition to people of color. In return the material rewards of expanded citizenship came from the oppression and exploitation of peoples of color.

Exploitation continued to be the defining reality of most white people, but through a process of internalized white supremacy and expanded citizenship, loyalty was maintained. Resistance from white people like me has indeed been fierce, and over and over again citizenship and more participation in this system have been granted to maintain loyalty.

I want to see a vision of democracy guide our movements against empire. What I fear is that oppressed people’s struggles for self-determination will not remain at the center of defining the movement’s agenda and that my people will become collaborators again.

We don’t do it intentionally; racism is rarely our intention. We do it because our humanity has been beaten so badly by this system, and it has been the master who has defined us as we regain consciousness. It was the master who defined superiority to people of color as our very humanity. The rewards are real.

This history of everyday white people working to gain power through the economic, political, social and psychological exploitation of people of color is real. But the resistance of everyday white people to this racist system that upholds the general exploitation of the world is also real.

It is time for all of us to believe in our ability to make history. For white radicals, we must imagine and realize our ability to recover our humanity in the process of struggle, side-by-side with our comrades of color in the US and around the world. We need an anti-imperialist, democractic practice that makes self-determination of the oppressed central to our vision and strategy.

In the struggle of democracy vs. empire, let us be clear not only about what we’re up against, but also about what we are working to build. This begins by taking seriously our ability to win.

Thanks to Chris Dixon, Rahula Janowski, Sharon Martinas, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez and Marc Swan for feedback.


Chris Crass is coordinator of the Catalyst Project: a center for political education, strategy development and movement building. He is a member of the Heads Up collective, an anti-war/economic and racial justice group in San Francisco.