L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism

Reviewed by Matthew

L.A. Kauffman, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. (London: Verso, 2017), 236 pp., $17.95

L.A. Kauffman’s valuable book, Direct Action, is both a thematic history of a period and a dramatic exploration of the changing repertoire of protest tactics used by the American movements of the radical left. Beginning with the May 3, 1971 “Mayday” anti-Viet Nam War demonstration in Washington, D.C., the book concludes with Black Lives Matter and the use of direct action in the 2014 resistance to racist police practices in Ferguson, Missouri. Consideration of times and techniques is integrated into four roughly chronological chapters which answer the book’s essential question: “What happened to the American left after the sixties?” (ix)

One of the challenges Kauffman faces, especially given the inviting compactness of the book, is how to organize a unified narrative out of the amazing “proliferation” and diversification of radical “identity-” and “issue-based” groups over the course of these almost four decades. Furthermore, this was an era during which “the left” of her original question lost its definite article. “The” traditional left went from a “counterculture” to promoting “majoritarian aspirations” only to be demoted into what Kauffman memorably calls a “subculture of resignation” (105).

Readers (especially of a Verso publication) might expect Kauffman, who wrote an early and influential, theoretically-informed article on identity politics in Socialist Review,1 to argue a general, front-loaded thesis or to develop an analytic schema which explains the transformation of American radicalism in the period – as is done by Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps in their 2015 book, Radicals in America.2 Kauffman, however, takes a different approach which is no less successful in the end: building from the bottom up to a convincing cumulative effect.

While there are some general synthesizing insights—such as the itinerary of “the post-sixties left”—Kauffman mostly relies on a technique of construction visible in this passage:

By 2014, practices like affinity groups, decentralized coordinating structures, and lockdown blockades had long been employed and recontextualized by black and brown organizers in a variety of movements. “Things have come full circle,” remarked Terry Marshall—an activist with SLAM! in the 1990s, a participant in the people of color delegation that attended the WTO [World Trade Organization] protests in Seattle in 1999, and an organizer with Occupy Wall Street in 2011—after spending time in Ferguson ... where a host of new black-led groups ... carried forward the composition and political character of predecessors like SLAM! [a multiracial radical student group at several CUNY campuses]: they tended to be women- and queer-led with intersectional feminist politics (181-182).

Kauffman’s approach here embeds the interlocking categories of race (“people of color”) and gender (“women- and queer-led intersectionalism”) throughout the book. Thus, the non-violent resistance tactics of disruptive protest pioneered by black Civil Rights organizations in the 60s, which served as a model for the 1971 Mayday organizers, are further developed by the many, predominantly white, radical political movements of the next forty years only to be gradually reclaimed for creative redeployment by black activists, culminating in their leadership of the anti-racist struggle in Ferguson.

The success of this project requires a good understanding of the forms of collective fightback—including style, tone, and general impression—as well as the grounding of discontent and the possibilities for its expression in their detailed material context. Kauffman’s role as a participant in protest organizations gives her a sense for important shifts not just in strategy, but in their “structures of feeling,” to use Raymond William’s term.3 This sensitivity is most impressively displayed in the excellent chapter on resistance to Reagan’s America, “In Your Face,” where she makes a convincing case that hardcore punk’s attitude contributed to the protest movements, despite its limited aims as a subculture. Kauffman goes on to argue for ACT UP being “the most innovative, influential, and effective radical organization of the late 20th century” because of its development of an independent style or semi-professional “brand” of direct action that broke with the rehearsed responses of more mainstream, less “mediagenic” traditional protest groups (88). Affected by the punk aesthetic and attitude, it was a new approach that demanded more creative direct participation, if not the shock of full frontal confrontation, with outrage expressed in the “outrageous” (107). Kauffman quotes from an interview she did with an ACT UP activist in 1991: “In ACT UP, people hate rallies instinctively. Nobody can stand to be there listening to people preach to the converted—they don’t understand why you don’t get everybody and go do something” (112).

Kauffman covered American radical movements over much of the post-sixties period as an independent journalist—and, one suspects, incidental archivist. The book is very deeply documented. Its large collection of interviews, reports, and on-the-scene alternative media sources will be valuable not only to scholars of the period, but also to young activists. Particularly notable are the interviews with three fascinating and well-spoken radical figures: former Afro-Punk musician, now Ferguson activist, Maurice Moe Mitchell; Barbara Smith, a founder of the (socialist-feminist) Combahee River Collective; and direct-action trainer Lisa Fithian.

Many of the materials used by Kauffman are again accessible today, through digital technology. See, for instance, the streaming video of ACT UP member John Weir interrupting Dan Rather’s CBS newscast during the 1991 Gulf War with a cry of “Fight AIDS, Not Arabs! AIDS is News!” The additional interview of Weir in the video supports Kauffman’s analysis of ACT UP.4 The author also has a judicious eye for citing representative texts which deserve re-examination because of their usefulness in current debates, such as the anarchist-influenced pamphlet, “Anti-Mass: Methods of Organizing for Collectives” and, on the other side, Jo Freeman’s classic “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” both from the 70s.

The direct-action protest movements that receive attention include: anti-Viet Nam War, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, anti-racist, environmental (Earth First!), AIDS (ACT UP), GLBTQ, Central American Solidarity, feminist, and Occupy. To its credit, however, the book never reads like a long catalog or check-list; if anything, the reader is primarily impressed with its concision, particularly when flipping through the 32 pages of small print sources in the “Notes” appendix.

There are, however, a few arguably important omissions. One wonders, for example, why there is so little attention to the use of radical direct action by the labor movement or in the economic struggles of working people, on the job or in the community. Unions are represented by bureaucrats, such as Lane Kirkland, and relatively inert mass memberships without mention of rank and file reform caucuses, workers’ centers, wildcat strikes or other job actions, and the Fight for Fifteen (95f). In addition, while Kauffman compellingly closes the circle of nonviolent direct action with her final chapter on Ferguson, the immigrant rights movement, with its “Day Without Immigrants” and “May Day” actions could also have been mentioned to complete a “Mayday to May Day” bookending.

None of this is to say that Kauffman has an obligation to cover every movement or even every social sector. As Salar Mohandesi observes in a recent essay, there is an unhelpful (and uncharitable) tendency in parts of the contemporary left where “failure to include a particular oppression in the master list will be mistakenly interpreted as the willful rejection or erasure of a particular struggle against a particular oppression.”5 This pathbreaking book, while complete in itself, ought also to be seen as an invitation to further elaboration and collaboration.

Matthew Schultz
Illinois College
Jacksonville, Illinois


1 “The Anti-Politics of Identity,” reprinted in Identity Politics in the Women's Movement (New York : New York University Press, 2001).

2 Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 8.

3 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 128-135.

4 John Weir, “The Day of Desperation – January 22, 1991,YouTube video, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDZWNknl2-E .

5 Salar Mohandesi, “Identity Crisis,” Viewpoint Magazine, March 16, 2017, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/03/16/identity-crisis/, 17-18. Mohandesi also makes appreciative use of Kauffman’s early article on identity politics, mentioned previously, 16.