Knowledge and Struggle

Learning Activism

A review of Learning Activism by Aziz Choudry

Published on March 18, 2016

The fascinating story of how contemporary activists learn from each other and disseminate their knowledge is still being unravelled by academia, as well as by social movements themselves. In Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements, Aziz Choudry,an activist-turned-academic and professor in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, pays homage to the intellectual work that is inherently produced and circulated when people get together to challenge oppressive systems.

The question of how activists come to know what they know is central to Choudry’s work. In this book he draws upon his varied activist experience, from anti-APEC organizing in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the context of neoliberal globalization to the emancipatory anti-exploitation work at Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre. These experiences are interwoven with insights gleaned from fellow activists in broader networks, including labour education in South Africa and anti-WTO mobilization in Seattle. Choudry makes an undeniable case that key ideas from the histories of solidarity, struggle, and Indigenous resistance are often overlooked, despite the importance of the knowledge emanating from such sites.

Learning Activism
The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements

Aziz Choudry

University of Toronto Press

The book’s main title could be misconstrued for a how-to manual, but this is far from Activism 101. This rigorously theoretical work draws helpful connections between figures like Antonio Gramsci, Harsha Walia, and Himani Bannerji, and is primarily aimed at students, teachers, and anyone involved in struggles
for social change. Those only newly acquainted with contemporary social movements will access streams of thinking that strive to be accountable to the complex past, present, and potential of collective action.

Learning Activism’s four main sections map sites of activist learning, both geographically and institutionally: the current context of social movement knowledge production; the theoretical frameworks and historiographies relating to past and present social movement theory; popular education through art and formal versus informal learning; and, finally, the contentious question of expertise in the field. Understanding the “dynamic reciprocal engagement by theorists and movement activists in formulating, producing, refining, and applying research” is the overarching task of this work. Researching and organizing are consistently presented as being deeply interdependent.

One of Choudry’s most compelling points is that informal/non-formal learning contexts complement more formal ones, and that the unrecognized movement participant remains as important as the scholar in contributing to theoretical paradigms. There are no tidy, all-encompassing explanations of how movements and struggles evolve and succeed. Instead, we are asked to consider just how much the internal life of social movements is interwoven with their political experience and potential.

The questions Choudry poses about geography, scale, valuation, and relationality in movement building, knowledge production, and education expand our map of truly democratic practices. The West, NGOs, and academia do not provide the primary thrust of action, and likewise, Choudry argues, they do not adequately record and archive the objects, tools, and artifacts of activism’s intellectual life. The Anarchives project at Montreal’s Médiathèque littéraire Gaëtan Dostie is presented as an example, albeit a manifestly white one, of autonomous movement archiving at the local scale. According to Choudry, this type of archiving is essential to the struggle’s renewal, while also serving as remediation to more dominant mobilization narratives.

“We are in dire need of thinking, acting, theorizing, and imagining ‘outside of the box’ to make fundamental changes and dramatic differences in the communities, societies, and world we live in,” Choudry insists. As long as the intellectual work of social movements makes space for the theorizing of ordinary people and for resounding the voices of the unheard, it will continue to illuminate the global struggle for change. mRb

Patricia Boushel is a cultural producer, activist translator, and prison meditator from Montreal. She also ponders questions of rights, justice and democracy through her work as a researcher and community organizer.



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