- Frustrating National Narratives
Charting in any sort of uniform way the life and times of a social movement can be a slippery business. Social movements are as varied and complex as the people behind them. Their goals can shift and change over time. Relationships between their leadership and their base can sometimes fully mesh, and at other times reveal yawning organizational and directional chasms. Some social movements focus on a single issue, such as the recent Occupy movement calling for a basic redress of economic inequality, and they can generate considerable heat and light for a time, before losing that focus in maelstroms of wider protests or dissipating in the face of movement exhaustion. Others, like the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, can champion broader movements in which seemingly discrete issues are related, their goals intertwined, their solutions connected. Finding kindred causes to advance collective goals can become a powerful force for change. Gains can be made even in the face of fierce, sometimes violent, opposition.
In their telling of the stories of social movements, then, writers concerned with imposing some useful sense on the matter may well find themselves confronted by wrinkles such as these, and many more besides. Slippery indeed. [End Page 248]
Navigating some of these rhythms and dynamics are four new books examining social movements from the progressive publishing house Between the Lines. The books differ from one another in several important ways. Two are principally histories: one an edited collection detailing anti-war/peace movements in Canada, and the other an edited graphic collection exploring aspects of the Canadian working class and its struggles over time. The other two books feature more contemporary stories of social movements and, perhaps most importantly, are written by participants in the movements they describe. One tells a story of Indigenous resistance to Canadian colonial authority from the 1960s through to the present; the other is an insider's view of the 2012 Quebec student movement protesting governmental threats to affordable tuition in that province.
Linking these books together in different, sometimes marked, ways is their emphasis on organized citizen-group resistance to the authority of the state, its agents, or the otherwise powerful in society (who not uncommonly call on the power of the state and its agents to advance their goals). Resistance, of course, is only one way of looking at social movements. The other is advocacy. And these books, to varying degrees, try to do both. This distinction is important, for while resistance suggests an inherent reactionary response to a given problem in the past or present, advocacy tries to introduce wholly new conversations. Resistance is, by definition, against something; advocacy, by contrast, is for something else. The books feature different citizen groups (war resisters and peace activists, the working class, Indigenous peoples, students), but their approaches to their subjects remain consistent. As stories of social resistance, they are fashioned out of (a) a cause for action, (b) some combination of leadership direction and grassroots support, and (c) the strength of the forces lined up against the movement. As stories of social advocacy, they illustrate different ways of thinking about how societies are organized. Along the way, there is considerable room for debates about the true cause for action (is it an immediate activating event, or part of a broader, systemic problem?). There is also room to account for the nuanced relationships between leadership and base (do social movements' leaders direct the grassroots, or are they merely finding their way to the front of a parade already in full swing? Or does the...