Book Review: This Is An Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler

Book Review: This Is An Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler

Cover of the Book, This is an Uprising
Book:This Is An Uprising
Authors: Mark and Paul Engler
Review by Betsy Raasch-Gilman
What do ACT-UP, the desegregation struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, the Harvard Living Wage Sit-In, the immigrant rights movement, and Earth First! have in common?

For one thing, they all appear as case studies in the new book on civil resistance called This Is An Uprising:  How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century by Mark and Paul Engler.

Anyone who is currently involved in the movement for Black lives and/or climate change struggles is likely to find this book provoking, inspiring, and exciting.  The authors, a pair of organizer brothers raised by an activist mother, pick up very ably where Bill Moyer left off in Doing Democracy.  Fortunately for all of us, they do it without the moralistic tone which dampens the appeal of Doing Democracy.

This is An Uprising begins with an explanation of the difference between moral nonviolence and strategic nonviolence - then delves into the dynamics of strategic nonviolence with skill and insight.  By highlighting various peoples’ struggles for justice, they point out some of the levers which civil resistance can use to dislodge powerful institutions.  This is a “how-to” book!  Using it, a reader can begin to think strategically, rather than magically or fatalistically, about the movements they care about.

The Englers begin with the tension between an Alinski-based, transactional approach to organizing and a transformational approach, first described by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.  The transactional approach, the Englers maintain, wins concrete improvements in peoples’ lives, though these concessions from power-holders often fall short of what campaigners really want.  The transformational approach, carried forward more by sprawling movements than by structured organizations, change the terms of debate and ways of thinking.  As an example, the Englers point to the now-familiar language of the 99% and the 1%.  Organized labor had been trying to make the wealth gap a public issue through rallies and marches for some time before Occupy Wall Street burst onto the stage.  It took this unorthodox, leader-full uprising to get everyone talking about the wealth gap.  The authors maintain that transformational movements can open up much broader possibilities for reform, which transactional organizations can take advantage of later on.  Some thoughtful movements, such as that which overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, combine elements of both.  (Electoral candidates worked – reluctantly – with the popular movement Otpor.)

The Englers go on to highlight many other levers for destabilizing unmovable institutions:  eroding the pillars of power; making demands with high symbolic value as well as demands with practical significance; escalating tactics over time; disrupting business as usual; creating public sympathy through sacrifice; intentionally polarizing the debate through “extremism”; destroying property and risking arrest; and developing countercultural communities of support.  They spend a whole chapter on the whirlwind effect when a movement takes off, and the inevitable let-down after such a whirlwind peters out. It’s a wide-ranging book!

In some ways, the best part is that it helps the activist reader make sense of their own experience.  Using so many case studies from the recent past, the Englers point out what, in fact, we may already know from living through it, and/or from hearing first-hand stories.  They carefully debunk the notion that movements are spontaneous, unplanned, uncontrolled, or emotional.  Successful campaigns and movements are the product of strategic thinking, including the ability to take advantage of a lucky break.  Thanks to the Englers, more of us can be conscious of how social change moves, and increase our chances of pushing it along.

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