Learning from Organizers — Saleh Waziruddin

[Originally published on The Media Co-op.]

Saleh Waziruddin is a South Asian anti-racism activist who has participated in grassroots struggles throughout his adult life. In his 20s, he organized in the Muslim community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now in his 40s, he lives in Niagara, Ontario, and is active in the Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association (NRARA). Though not one of its founders, he has been part of the group since it started in 2018. He is on its executive committee and is most active in its campaigns related to police reform, support for individuals experiencing racism, and municipal anti-racism advisory committees.

The Media Co-op: What are a couple of important things you’ve learned from struggles that you, yourself, are not directly involved in, and why are they important?

Saleh Waziruddin: I’ve been looking into revolutions in the 1970s, because they broke the conventional wisdom that you need to organize a majority first and re-confirmed the Bolshevik model of revolution to some extent, which many still say is outdated – the Afghan Republican and April Revolutions (1973, 1978), the Portuguese and Ethiopian revolutions (1974), and Grenada’s revolution (1979, see below for resources). While sources for most of these are hard to get in English, Grenada is an English-speaking country and busts the myth that English-speaking countries have never had a revolution or never will.

One of the recent books by a leader of Grenada’s revolution says it was very difficult for women leaders to participate because of the burdens they had to carry as women in addition to leading the revolution. Activist groups and progressive governments need to address this by making childcare and housework socialized and shared, something advocated by Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik revolutionary.

TMC: How might your learning about the revolutions of the 1970s relate to or inform struggles in Canada today?

SW: Many activists look at examples like Podemos in Spain or SYRIZA in Greece to think about how progressives can come to power and bring political change. These are “post-Gramsci” models based on the works of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau that call for compromising clear left agendas to encompass a majority of the population first, and Antonio Gramsci advocated getting hegemony for the left first before seizing state power. Gramsci said the Bolshevik model was for a bygone time and place. However, Podemos and SYRIZA have failed spectacularly, and are discredited because of their compromises. The revolutions in the 1970s instead took the Bolshevik approach of seizing power as soon as possible and then, after seizing power, trying to get a majority through bringing results and progressive reforms instead of waiting for a majority first. Rosa Luxemburg summed this up excellently in her 1918 work The Russian Revolution:

Thereby the Bolsheviks solved the famous problem of “winning a majority of the people,” which problem has ever weighed on the German Social-Democracy like a nightmare. As bred-in-the-bone disciples of parliamentary cretinism, these German Social-Democrats have sought to apply to revolutions the home-made wisdom of the parliamentary nursery: in order to carry anything, you must first have a majority. The same, they say, applies to a revolution: first let’s become a “majority.” The true dialectic of revolutions, however, stands this wisdom of parliamentary moles on its head: not through a majority, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority – that’s the way the road runs.

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you aren’t involved in that you’ve found to be particularly useful or important?

SW: There has been a recent spate of books and responses written by leaders of Grenada’s revolution because many have only just been released from prison. Bernard Coard has written a series of books (The Grenada Revolution: What Really Happened, Skyred: A Tale of Two Revolutions, Forward Ever: Journey to a New Granada) as has Phyllis Coard (Unchained: A Caribbean Woman’s Journey Through Invasion, Incarceration & Liberation).

Bernard Coard is blamed in part for the failure of the revolution and unfortunately his book does not cover the exact details of the assassination of its leader Maurice Bishop, something that has still not been fully explained.

Incidentally, Bernard Coard’s 1971 book (How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal by the British School System), written when he was an anti-racism activist in the UK, is still very useful for looking at the roots of racism in Canada’s education systems.

TMC: What are a couple of key things about struggles that you are involved in or about your approach to activism and organizing that you would like other people to know more about?

SW: One of the most important things is to go by people’s actions (under close examination) and not their words alone. Many people talk anti-racism but have no idea about actually challenging white supremacy. When it comes time to take action they are not allies but actually work against you. Many of these people have all kinds of credentials related to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) and have the education to use the right words, though of course not everyone with credentials or education is a fake.

It’s difficult to recruit the right people but movements that are active, such as Palestine solidarity, are a great source to find people who are being radicalized and want to make a bigger contribution to change than the movement they are involved in.

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you are involved in or to your approach to activism and organizing that you would want other people to read/watch/listen to/learn from?

As a cisgender straight man, I am catching up on long-established analysis of the many ways men like me cause damage in movements. One classic paper I found useful is “Deconstructing Militant Manhood” by Lara Montesinos Coleman & Serena A. Bassi in International Feminist Journal of Politics, May 20, 2011.

I found the reference in a thesis written on a local activist group a few years ago but the author asked me to please not mention their thesis. However, people should look up theses written on activist groups doing similar things to what they are involved in or groups in their area to get a better understanding of past lessons learned (or not learned).

TMC: You say that “Many people talk anti-racism but have no idea about actually challenging white supremacy.” What are a couple of key things that distinguish empty anti-racism discourse from genuine struggle against white supremacy, and what are a few sources that people can look to if they want to learn more about the latter?

SW: The way to tell the difference between public relations and anti-racism is that anti-racism means actual change and spending resources, in terms of money and staff time. If there’s no actual change delivered and resources aren’t being put into it, it’s just public relations. That’s the stumbling block: will the government body actually put money and staff time into delivering the change, or will they say “well that takes too much staff time so we can’t do it.” This easy test can be applied to any proposals and policies. I have specific policies I’ve seen get watered down but those are probably too obscure for general reading.

Talking Radical: Resources is a collaboration between The Media Co-op and theTalking Radical project. In these short monthly interviews, activists and organizers from across so-called Canada connect you with ideas and with tools for learning related to struggles for justice and collective liberation. They talk about how they have learned, and about ways that you can learn.

Scott Neigh is a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author oftwo books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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