Engagement and Struggle: A Response to Stuart Henderson

Fred Burrill, Concordia University

“The monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker, from the grave, the pit, the profoundest pit. Hurl me into the next existence, the descent into hell won’t turn me. I’ll crawl back to dog his trail forever.” (George Jackson—Soledad Brother, Black Panther, movement martyr)[1]

Passive Nihilism? The View From Montreal
Active Nihilism? Beyond Subjectivity, Recovering Struggle


The importance of educating students about past radicalisms is undeniable. In presenting prior contexts of rebellion, historians on the left seek to provide new generations with a vocabulary of revolt, to impart a sense of the vital necessity of taking up the challenge of the traditions of resistance that have shaped our social and economic world. Another undeniability is that this is no easy task: as Stuart Henderson has amply demonstrated, patterns of disappointment and ironic detachment are woven tightly into the fabric of mass culture under capitalism. And yet, I am perturbed by the tone and conclusion of Professor Henderson’s recent article, “Disappointment, Nihilism, and Engagement.”

Henderson presents his musings as an attempt to expand on what, by his own avowal, was “knee-jerk professoring”; in a response to a concerned participant in his class he condemned the seeming apathy of his other students as a kind of moral failure to face up to the mounting challenges of global environmental decay, war, corporatization, etc. His longer piece, though, seems to me to be only a slightly more charitable articulation of this line of thought. In setting himself (and by extension other self-identified “active historians”) up as the impassioned and ethically enlightened authority figure, crusading against the passivity of a generation that would rather spend the reading week playing video games than at a protest, I want to submit that Henderson in fact bypasses what seem to me to be more interesting and fundamental questions. What constitutes engagement? Can conventional historical work (lecturing on the Sixties, for example) continue to be understood as a fulfillment of our responsibilities as left historians? Where should we be looking to find active history?

Further, this bypassing is related to a strange bifurcation within Henderson’s paper of “active past” and “passive present” that distorts and prevents a real assessment of the evolution of radical social movements in the second half of North America’s twentieth century. This narrative (the Radical Sixties, the Disappointing Seventies, the Demobilized Present) is a tired one. Within its confines we are unable to critically assess the potential of the present moment and are diverted from consideration of the multitude of creative ways that we as conscious, radical historians are called upon to engage with social struggle and resistance. In what follows, I try to push beyond this dichotomized understanding and briefly recall some of the ways in which Black Panther and political prisoner George Jackson’s “monster” has haunted and continues to haunt its powerful creators.

Passive Nihilism? The View From Montreal

I have never been to Hamilton, and don’t wish to quibble with Henderson’s rather depressing depiction of the students who attended his classes at McMaster. I will say, however, that from my own vantage point as a doctoral student at Concordia University in Montreal, things look quite a bit different. Firstly, the presence of an active student movement with a long history of struggle in Quebec—note, a political formation born from the cultural moment of the Sixties but one that has continued to win battles by means of a series of militant general strikes through the decades, most recently in 2005[2] — significantly changes the framework for student involvement and consciousness of the world around them. History students, notably, make up a significant portion of the membership and are prominent activists within the Association for Solidarity between Student Unions (l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), the largest radical grouping of students in the province and the most prominent voice in the struggle for free and accessible education.

A less obvious example of student involvement, but one that should speak volumes to active historians, is the dozens of undergraduates who volunteer their time in the Life Stories project at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling here in the History Department at Concordia. Life Stories, “an oral history project exploring Montrealers’ experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement,” is a vital link and democratic connection between historians and other scholars and members of various communities in Montreal. Undergraduate interns put in countless hours researching, conducting life history interviews with survivors, and editing video.[3]

Finally, the present moment in Montreal finds new and exciting efforts to re-insert historical analysis and popular historical production into the work of grassroots social justice movements. A recent conference organized by the People’s Commission Network (a grassroots network opposing and monitoring the “national security agenda” in Canada) kicked off its proceedings with a panel featuring prominent Canadian historians alongside activists with personal experience of state repression. It also featured a well-attended workshop on forming a People’s History group in Montreal.[4] This group, still in its most embryonic form, is in the beginning stages of planning out a series of popular lectures and workshops on social struggles locally and abroad.

All of this is neither to point to some kind of “Quebec exceptionalism” nor to toot my Montrealer horn. Instead, what seems significant to me in these examples is that none of them fall within the conventional academic rubric for measuring “engagement.” It is telling that Henderson’s first remedy for the difficulty of engaging his class was to “turn to the bookshelf,” seeking out philosophical understandings and counterweights to nihilism. When, as left historians, we set ourselves up in the “pulpit” of the classroom prepared solely to do intellectual battle with the “escapist routines” of our students, we have already missed the boat. When we proceed, rather, from a position of concrete and tangible solidarity with the struggles happening around us (again: this solidarity can take a multitude of forms, but must not be limited to our favourite pursuits of reading and writing), I would argue that there is significantly greater potential for implicating our students in grassroots organizing for social and environmental justice. While few enjoy being lectured by someone who assumes they hold the ethical edge, the capacity lies within us all to be excited and moved by seeing other human beings passionately engaged in struggle.

Active Nihilism? Beyond Subjectivity, Recovering Struggle

Henderson tells us that the course he was teaching on American history in the 1960s sought to “illustrate the era as a battle over subjectivity” in which “all of this [feminist, anti-racist, student power, etc.] political activity is reducible in a certain sense to the dialectic between the authentic and the alienated subject.” At its best, and typified in Henderson’s own work on Toronto’s “hip” Yorkville district, this line of thinking provides us with a framework to understand the ways in which various countercultural identities were performed on the stage of the shifting economic and social landscape of the Sixties—fertile ground for generating an analysis of the power dynamics within a given countercultural moment and the broader interaction and intertwining of these oppositional identities with hegemonic cultural norms.[5]

As American historians Mari Jo and Paul Buhle have written in another context, though, social and cultural historians today run the risk of falling into the “study of subjectivity minus the political subject.”[6] The great danger of treating the Sixties as a dramatic, wide-ranging “subjectivity play” is that we risk oversimplifying oppositional movements, flattening out all the depth of real people engaged in real political struggle for real and concrete ends. What becomes of those who dare stray outside the realm of action easily identifiable as “performance”? Within this formulation, it is all too easy for forms of political activity that go beyond counter-culture and non-violent civil disobedience to be swept under the rug. Thus, Henderson neatly dismisses the Weather Underground’s militant guerilla campaign as “nihilistic, active violence,” hardly to be distinguished from the “active nihilism” of fundamentalist terrorist campaigns.

This dismissal is but a small part of what Ward Churchill has referred to as the “thundering silence” amongst left-liberal movement historians on the great wave of armed struggle sweeping across the U.S. between 1968 and 1980.[7] Although historians must continue to critically evaluate the tactics chosen by the subjects of their histories, we must meet these historical figures in their contexts and their own understandings of their actions. The overly simple “active nihilism” moniker, with its accompanying construction of the “disappointing 1970s,” stifles any complex understanding of how the vibrant, popular, non-violent resistance of the 1960s became the harder-edged militancy of the 1970s. It also precludes useful discussion of what this legacy has meant for the evolution of the left as we know it today.

In the Canadian context, focusing on both failures and successes within movement genealogy would allow for a better understanding of the passivity of students at McMaster. On the one hand, how did the expansion and then post-1974 contraction of the federal state apparatus –the waxing and waning of social justice ideas within the Liberal government bookended by the progressive reforms of the “Just Society” and Trudeau’s turn to regressive wage freezes—work to undermine the autonomy and energy of left organizing? How did its embracing of nationalist discourse work to soften the oppositional edge of the labour movement? How did the drawn-out rightward shift of the NDP work to co-opt independent left voices and suck energy out of grassroots organizing? Analyses along this avenue of thought would reveal much about the development of a highly bureaucratized non-governmental organization (NGO)-industrial complex in Canada, alienating by nature and designed to encourage passive consumption of pre-packaged products like “ethical consumption” and “sustainability” by students like those in Henderson’s class. Within this complex, today’s youth are precluded from coming to a rejection of the system on their own terms and toward their own aims, and systematically diverted from posing any serious challenge to our society’s underlying systems of oppression. One need not resort to conspiracy theories to trace the systemic and ongoing attempt to thwart the growth of viable left opposition, long perpetuated by Canada’s liberal establishment and now taken up even more fervently by the Harper government.

On the other hand, we could also pursue a line of questioning highlighting the encouraging elements of Canada’s left since the 1960s. In the Quebec context, how has the historical presence of armed liberation struggle, and the social memory and reality of militant street action, shaped the left as it exists today? More generally, what impact did the experience of the anti-nuclear movement, radical environmentalism, and anti-apartheid struggles in the 1970s and 1980s have upon the development of Canadian forms of anti-authoritarian, anti-globalization struggles in the 1990s and beyond? What links have been formed and to what end, between the increasing militancy of indigenous nations in Canada and solidarity activists? (An important question for Henderson, as he is teaching so close to the ongoing struggle in Six Nations: does indigenous anti-government militancy count as “active nihilism”? It is after all motivated by a deep rejection of colonial Canadian society.) Any analysis of this sort will reveal that the monster awakened by oppression is here, too, far from dead.

Student engagement today, or lack thereof, needs to be historicized rather than lamented. If, as active historians, we content ourselves with a programme of progressive yet conventional historical work aimed at a body of people we understand to be generally passive and nihilistic, then we necessarily limit ourselves to catching the passionate few who attend our lectures out of anything other than compulsion. But if we strive to fully understand the movement’s evolution and its challenges in all their complexities, we see then that the scope of our responsibility extends far beyond the confines of the lecture hall. It is only through steadfast commitment to furthering grassroots struggle and creating frameworks for others to do so as well that we fully inhabit the realm of engagement. In moments of frustration, our first instinct ought never be to turn to the bookshelf.


1] www.historyisaweapon.com
2] Gelderloos, Peter. How Nonviolence Protects the State. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007.
3] Hansen, Ann. Direct Action: Memoirs of An Urban Guerrilla. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2001.
4] www.movement-history.ca.
5] Hill, Gord. The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.
6] Churchill, Ward. Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Expropriation in Contemporary North America. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1992.
7] Passerini, Luisa. Autobiography of a Generation: Italy, 1968. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1996.
8] www.mediacoop.ca
9] www.actuporalhistory.org


[1] George Jackson, Soledad Brother (New York: Bantam, 1970), 164.

[2] See Pierre Bélanger, Le mouvement étudiant québécois: son passé, ses revendications et ses luttes (1960-1983) (Montréal: L’Association nationale des étudiants et étudiantes du Québec, 1984); Benoît Lacoursière, Le Mouvement Étudiant au Québec, de 1983 à 2006 (Montréal: Éditions Sabotart, 2007).

[3] See http://www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca/.

[4] See http://www.peoplescommission.org/en/forum/.

[5] Stuart Henderson, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

[6] Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, “The New Labor History at the Cultural Crossroads,” in Leon Fink, In Search of the Working Class: Essays in American Labor History and Political Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 138.

[7] Ward Churchill, “ReVisioning a Movement With Teeth,” preface to Daniel Burton-Rose, ed., Creating a Movement With Teeth: A Documentary History of the George Jackson Brigade (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010), 11-16.

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