Movement Pedagogy: Beyond the Class/Identity Impasse

Morris Louis, Alpha Kappa, 1960.

The left is buzzing. Two themes are emerging as touchstones: first, an excitement that socialist ideas are increasing in popularity; second, an apparent impasse between what’s been called class politics and identity politics. The two themes dance with and around each other, one enlivening and the other threatening. The supposed impasse between class and identity might be seen as one of the greatest threats to contemporary movement struggles – that the oldest trick in the book is to weaken the left by getting activists fighting about class, race, gender so that a coalition to create a better world is impossible. Yet what threatens the excitement, this difference, is also the most potentially enlivening: if we can work through and with these divisions we can build (and have built) mass collective action. 

None of this is new. Others have written eloquently about difference, solidarity, and collective action. Some have engaged in insightful analysis of the supposed class/identity impasse. We want to intervene here by challenging the framing of this dichotomy; rather than take one side or the other, we see the impasse as the figment of a certain imagined relation to the current political landscape. As education researchers and activists frustrated by the terms of this imagined relation both in writing and in movement spaces, we have a different imagined relation, another ideology where this impasse doesn’t appear. Thinking about organizing pedagogically – centering the material conditions of activism, or the ritual practices involved in trying to change relations of production – gets us to this other ideology. 

Put differently, if we think pedagogically about the impasse threatening the left there is no impasse at all. 

Our approach reinvigorates and builds upon a conception of identity politics rooted in a critique of structural oppression. Salar Mohandesi notes that much contemporary rhetoric on identity politics lacks the structural critique that was so central to its history in radical social movements. As a result, he argues that “identity politics has now increasingly become an obstacle to unity.” Beyond an individualistic project of listing personal privileges and disadvantages, we see the politics of identity as one of positionality: a recognition of our different locations within intersecting systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. This critique was forcefully made by black feminists in the Combahee River Collective, who challenged a universalist vision of socialism that denied racial, gendered, and sexual injustice. Their 1977 statement called on organizers to “articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless, workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants of their working/economic lives.” Without addressing these processes, we risk reproducing these injustices in our movements.

In this essay, we suggest that when we think pedagogically about organizing, we arrive at a coalition between concepts that can appear to be incommensurate. Thinking pedagogically renders a coalition between the universality associated with class struggle, and the positionality that is key to a radical identity politics. Thus, we contend that the field of education offers crucial lessons for today’s activists. Attending to the actual arrangements of voices and minds and bodies in classrooms and movements, what people actually do when they come together to fight and unlearn oppressive relations of production, shows a link where most ideologies on offer today show a gap. By looking at the history of where movements and classrooms have met – critical pedagogy – we find examples of how universality and positionality meet to form coalition. 

What follows is a story from 30 years ago, about how a college class, trying to study and organize against structural inequality, had to change course. Midway through the semester, professor and students abandoned the pedagogy and curriculum they started with, even changing the name of the course to reflect their shift in strategy to create social change. In so doing, they offer an example of a pedagogical approach to organizing: how to build coalition across groups whose identities differ, and how to build coalition between the concepts of identity and universalism.

Coalition 607

The story begins with a 15-foot racist statue. In 1987, a University of Wisconsin-Madison fraternity named FIJI threw a party featuring a huge “Fiji Native” – a likeness of a brown man with a bone through his nose. Racial tensions had been high on campus, and Elizabeth Ellsworth, a young professor in the School of Education working on politics, media, and curriculum theory, wanted to teach a class examining these tensions, with an eye towards activism. In an article reflecting on the experience, she explains that her goal was to “design a course in media and pedagogy that would work not only to clarify the structures of institutional racism … but would also use that understanding to plan and carry out a political intervention in that formation.”

Ellsworth drew from the relatively new field of critical pedagogy to design the course and furnish its curriculum. Curry Malott has argued that there are at least two histories of critical pedagogy: academic critical pedagogy and revolutionary critical pedagogy. The latter is rooted in the educational underpinnings of revolutions against ruling classes throughout human history. The former is relatively recent. Isaac Gottesman makes the case that academic critical pedagogy emerged from American cultural theorist Henry Giroux’s work in the late 1970s and 1980s. Giroux mixed post-Marxist conceptions of ideology and hegemony, a concern for youth culture rooted in cultural studies, and liberal conceptions of citizenship, public sphere, and nation-state to form a critical theory of schooling. Associating it with the revolutionary work of Paulo Freire, specifically the book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the theory became popular among prominent education scholars like Stanley Aronowitz, Peter McLaren, Ira Shor, and Joe Kincheloe. Critical pedagogy – Giroux’s term – became a powerful current in educational research in the 1990s.

As it gained popularity in the US, critical pedagogy cast the classroom teacher (from kindergarten to graduate school) as an organic intellectual who confronts unjust social structures through classroom discussion, promoting critical consciousness to achieve values like democracy, equality, and liberation. At the core of this pedagogical perspective was the idea that dialogue can be used as a tool to fight exploitative social structures: the critical pedagogue fosters student empowerment by inviting them to speak openly about experiences of oppression, analyze the institutions of oppression around them, and deconstruct oppressive meanings in the broader culture. Ultimately, Giroux would use the word “resistance” to characterize the theory, calling on teachers to raise students’ consciousness in the name of radical democracy.

Ellsworth had studied critical pedagogy carefully and incorporated it into her course, which she called Curriculum and Instruction 607: Media and Anti-racist Pedagogies. She describes the diverse group of students it drew, including “Asian American, Chicano/a, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and Anglo European men and women from the United States, and Asian, African, Icelandic, and Canadian international students.” This diverse context seemed ideal for engaging in critical pedagogy. And yet, problems arose as soon as the class began.

When invited to speak about injustices they had experienced and witnessed on campus, students struggled to communicate clearly about racism. They had a hard time speaking and listening to one another about the main subject of the course. Rather than dialogue providing grounds for solidarity, “the defiant speech of students and professor…constituted fundamental challenges to and rejections of the voices of some classmates and often the professor.” Ellsworth began to question the limitations of an approach to dialogue that assumes “all members have equal opportunity to speak, all members respect other members’ rights to speak and feel safe to speak, and all ideas are tolerated and subjected to rational critical assessment against fundamental judgments and moral principles.” These assumptions were not bearing out in her classroom due to the vastly different histories, experiences, and perspectives of those in the room.

There was difficulty, pain, and deadlock in communicating about the social structure of the university, a deadlock that fell along classed, racial, gendered and national lines. Like a broken window, fissures between the experiences and perspectives of Ellsworth and her students formed cracks, which then caused more cracks, until no one could see each other clearly.

Contrary to critical pedagogy’s promise of liberation through dialogue, Ellsworth’s classroom was filled with uncomfortable silences, confusions, and stalemates caused by the fragmentation. The students and professor could not achieve their stated goal of understanding institutional racism and stopping its business-as-usual at the university. She recalls that

[t]hings were not being said for a number of reasons. These included fear of being misunderstood and/or disclosing too much and becoming too vulnerable; memories of bad experiences in other contexts of speaking out; resentment that other oppressions (sexism, heterosexism, fat oppression, classism, anti-Semitism) were being marginalized in the name of addressing racism – and guilt for feeling such resentment; confusion about levels of trust and commitment about those who were allies to one another’s group struggles; resentment by some students of color for feeling that they were expected to disclose more and once again take the burden of doing pedagogic work of educating White students/professor about the consequences of White middle class privilege; resentment by White students for feeling that they had to prove they were not the enemy.

The class seemed to be reproducing the very oppressive conditions it sought to challenge. As they reflected on these obstacles, Ellsworth and her students decided to alter the terms of their engagement. They replaced the universalism of critical pedagogy, in which students were imagined to all enter dialogue from similar locations, with a situated pedagogy that foregrounded the challenge of working collectively from their vastly different positions. This shift completely altered the tactics in the course. Rather than performing the teacher role as an emancipatory expert presumed able to create a universal critical consciousness through dialogue, Ellsworth became a counselor, helping to organize field trips, potlucks, and collaborations between students and movement groups around campus. These activities helped to build relations of trust and mutual support without presuming that all students entered the classroom from the same position. Rather than holding class together in a traditional way, Ellsworth met with students one on one, discussing particular experiences, histories, and feelings with them, talking through these new activities.

As trust began to form out of the morass of division, students created affinity groups based on shared experiences and analyses. The groups met outside of class to prepare for in-class meetings, which “provided some participants with safer home bases from which they gained support…and a language for entering the larger classroom interactions each week.” The affinity groups were a paradigm shift. The class went from a collection of atomized individuals to a network of shared and unshared experiences working in unison. Ellsworth writes that, “once we acknowledged the existence, necessity, and value of these affinity groups we began to see our task as…building a coalition among multiple, shifting, intersecting, and sometimes contradictory groups carrying unequal weights of legitimacy within the culture of the classroom. Halfway through the semester, students renamed the class Coalition 607.” Ellsworth describes this move from fragmentation to coalition as coming together based on what the group did not share, rather than what they did share. Ultimately the class generated proposals for direct action to confront structural inequalities at the university.

Why doesn’t this feel empowering?

In 1989, Ellsworth published her now-famous article reflecting on the Coalition 607 experience. Provocatively entitled, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy,” she used her experiences in this course to critique what she saw as a universalist model of voice, dialogue and liberation embedded within the assumptions of critical pedagogy. At the heart of this problem was a failure to recognize the fact that students do not all enter into dialogue on equal terrain. Instead, the social context of the classroom – like any other – is shaped by the very unequal histories and structures that critical pedagogy seeks to address. Thus, the idea that Ellsworth and her students might set aside their differences in order to tackle institutional racism on campus proved naive, and even harmful. Instead, it was through a pedagogical shift to coalition that they were ultimately able to build collective action. These actions were rooted not in claims of universality, but in a commitment to building solidarity across structural divisions.

Ellsworth’s story offers useful lessons for contemporary movement debates – debates that are often framed around an apparent dichotomy of class universalism versus identity politics. The question, “why doesn’t this feel empowering?” gestures toward the subtle (and not-so-subtle) processes of exclusion that occur within many movement spaces, where the seemingly neutral terms of debate obscure the specific perspectives that guide our agendas, strategies, and discussions. As Peter Frase notes, “appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others.” Yet, Ellsworth and her students did not simply retreat into separate corners when these divisions flared; instead, they rethought the terms of their engagement in order to develop strategies for working together across difference. It was by thinking pedagogically about organizing that Ellsworth and her students arrived at a strategy of coalition.

Of course, the material conditions of movement spaces differ from those of the classroom, and these differences hold particular challenges for the pedagogical project we are describing. For one, folks who come together in movement spaces – from meetings to social media forums – are often coming from even more disparate histories and experiences than those found in the classroom. The members of Ellsworth’s class occupied diverse positions, but they all shared the institutional location of student. The same cannot be assumed of those who come together to fight for universal healthcare, or housing justice. A second issue is one of retention. The members of Ellsworth’s course may have disengaged when problems arose, but they continued to return to class because they were institutionally obligated as students. By contrast, when these kinds of fissures emerge in movement spaces, they are likely to drive people away entirely. Thus, the stakes for thinking pedagogically about organizing are that much greater.

Pedagogy is often second nature in classrooms, whereas in other spaces, while just as important, it is a distant concern. Yet we are not the first to draw connections between what happens in classrooms and in movements. As noted above, critical pedagogy is deeply indebted to the work of Paulo Freire, whose approach to dialogue in popular education was not designed for schooling, but as a movement strategy for organizing Brazilian working class adults. Contemporary education scholars like Aziz Choudry highlight the learning that happens in social movements, such as the Quebec student strike of 2012, through “talking, exchanging, marching together, claiming and creating space, confronting power, building solidarities and trust.” What we can add to this is a consideration of the lessons education has to offer the contemporary US left, in the face of what many perceive as an impasse. Coalition 607 reveals what’s possible when we take seriously not only the material conditions we seek to change (i.e., racism on campus), but also the material conditions of activist work itself (i.e., forging collective action across structural divides). It was through this pedagogical approach to organizing that Ellsworth and her students reached coalition.

We find the Ellsworth example particularly helpful because it takes place in an educational institution where pedagogy is front and center, but her classroom is devoted to changing the relations of production at the institution in question. Coalition 607 is a paradigm case of people establishing relations of activism while trying to change relations of production. They establish those activist relations positionally, taking seriously where each student comes from in the social structure, rather than erasing those differences in the name of some universal value. Ellsworth jettisons critical pedagogy’s strategy of teacher-as-emancipatory expert of universal liberation for a new strategy of teacher-as-emancipatory counselor amidst positional difference, and this creates movement towards the collective goal the former strategy sought to achieve. In doing so, she shows us what thinking pedagogically about movements can reveal: a coalition between universality and positionality where the impasse between identity politics and class struggle is not an impasse at all.

Ellsworth’s coalition – what we call thinking pedagogically about organizing – is an example of how to get to the imagined relation that dissolves the alleged impasse between class struggle and identity politics: thinking pedagogically creates an ideology of coalition rather than an ideology of impasse.

We can apply this insight from classrooms to activist spaces by examining a recent proposal adopted by the Democratic Socialists of America. At the national convention in August 2017, DSA members debated a controversial resolution calling for a rigorous program of organizer trainings. “Resolution #28: National Training Strategy” proposed to train “some 300 DSA members every month for 15 months” with the goal of ultimately producing “a core of 200 highly experienced trainers and 5,000 well trained leaders and organizers to carry forward DSA’s work in 2018 and beyond.” The proposal asked delegates to devote a significant amount of DSA’s national funds ($190,000) toward creating this nationwide activist training program, which includes modules on Socialist Organizing and Social Movements and Political Education.

The resolution emerged from a plank of the Praxis slate of candidates for the National Political Committee. On their website, the slate described this “National Training Strategy” in detail, emphasizing the importance of teaching and learning a “wide array of organizing skills and tactics so members develop the skills to pursue their own politics” (emphasis in original). Noting that “Poor and working people – particularly people of color – are often treated as external objects of organizing,” this educational strategy explicitly sought to use positionality as a strength. They elaborate: “If DSA is serious about building the power of working people of whatever race, gender, citizen status or region, we must re-build the spine of the Left to be both strong and flexible.” Aware that DSA members would be coming from a variety of positions, the slate made education a central plank of their platform. Members pursuing “their own politics” based on their precise structural location would create a flexible and strong spine for left politics. They write: “It’s not just the analysis, but also the methods of organizing that we pursue which create the trust, the self-knowledge, and the solidarity to make durable change in our world.”

While we can’t know for sure how the training strategy will work out, we highlight the resolution as an example of pedagogical thinking in the terms we have set out here.

To be clear, this is not simply because of the focus on political education, but because it advances an approach to movement building that explicitly tackles the challenge of working together across difference in relations of activism. The training strategy is national, encompassing the entire country, yet it is structured to provide tools for activists working from vastly different structural locations.1 This is an ideology of coalition, naming specific social categories and taking seriously how they intersect to create difference in social structure. Working from this perspective, the ideology of impasse outlined at the beginning of this essay one that pits class struggle against identity politics makes no sense. The impasse dissolves.

Coalition’s Promise as Strategy and Theory

For us, Ellsworth’s story and Resolution #28 illustrate the limits of universalism and the promise of coalition. In the current political context, coalition is not only a crucial strategy for organizing across structural divides, but also a way of thinking beyond the dichotomy of class universalism vs. identity politics. Rather than framing this as an either/or debate, we see promise in a theoretical coalition between the universal and the particular. Such a coalition would work toward a situated critique of universality, but remain ultimately oriented toward mass collective action. Ellsworth’s change of course suggests that a recognition of our situatedness does not undermine collective action – in fact, it’s essential for it.

More broadly, Ellsworth’s story highlights the political lessons to be found within the field of education, as educators continually reflect on the relationship between ideas and practice. The work of organizing and movement building is deeply pedagogical. If we fail to recognize the specific histories that inform our own perspectives, as well as those around us, then we will encounter significant obstacles. A pedagogical approach to collective action encourages us to think about how knowledge is produced through situated encounters, not only in our classrooms, but also in our homes, workplaces, communities, and movement spaces.

Ellsworth’s ultimate concern was how to run her class. Routines, activities, and ways of speaking were her bottom line. While she had been steeped in universalist discourses and practices, and while she was engaged in important reflection on them, she translated her thinking into action – how to listen, how to speak, and how to move forward given the struggles she encountered. We offer her research as an example for contemporary movements, particularly those groups seeking ways to create coalition across difference, to emphasize that our bottom line should not only be an analysis of the problem we are fighting – such as exploitative working conditions, mass incarceration, or environmental racism – but also the quality of the everyday routines and practices in our movements as we fight to create the social relations and structures we want. How will we listen? How will we speak? How will we plan agendas, facilitate meetings, and converse? Universality flattens the differences between us, while identity fragments us according to these differences. Neither is enough on its own for a theory-strategy towards change.

Movement Pedagogy as Articulation

In his careful tracing of the history of identity politics, Mohandesi draws from Stuart Hall’s concept of articulation to think through this problem. This perspective challenges the assumption that one’s politics are immediately determined by their social position, and instead, asks “under what circumstances can a connection be forged or made?”2 We share this interest in the conditions that make possible particular expressions of unity amid difference. Mohandesi uses articulation to challenge the notion that identities are stable things that straightforwardly dictate one’s political views. Articulation is useful here because it challenges determinism and draws our attention to the conditions in which a particular connection occurs. It’s not inevitable that women will have a structural analysis of patriarchy, for instance, just as it’s not guaranteed that a message that is encoded with a particular meaning will be decoded in the preferred way. Articulation poses a challenge to determinism by looking at the contingent conditions in which a particular connection occurs – e.g., in which ideologies take hold, or in which unities are forged. Articulation is always contingent, and thus “without guarantees,” as Hall would say, but it is a theoretical practice that creates unity through difference by making connections – such as the links forged among unevenly positioned people and groups in social structures. It is to put things together in ways that create unity out of difference, but using the existing difference as a starting point. Hall writes that articulation is “thinking difference in complex unity, without becoming hostage to the privileging of difference as such.”

If Jennifer Daryl Slack is right in her interpretation, there is a problem for articulation: it’s a thinking exercise. In other words, it’s too theoretical – a difficulty which Hall worried about in his own writing on the concept. Our account of pedagogy can help here. We have conceived of pedagogy in movements as the material conditions of activism; it is the ritual practices involved in actual movement work. We would therefore claim that pedagogy enacts articulations in specific moments.

In the introduction to his Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977), Ernesto Laclau uses the example of Plato’s cave to illustrate the concept: what Plato wanted to do was disarticulate the meanings of shadows as realities and rearticulate them as falsities. Consider the person who leaves the cave and then returns: there is a difference between (a) knowing that shadows are false and that the chained people have to be freed from their illusions, and (b) what this person actually does to free the chained from their illusions. Does she listen to each of them, develop relationships over time, then slowly bring them to a realization about the shadows? Does she bring an axe and just chop the chains without talking? Does she constantly insist that because they are all chained they should therefore break those chains together and rise up? Whereas articulation gives her a theory for the first step, pedagogy gives her a strategy for the second step.

Indeed, reflecting on Hall’s contributions, John Clarke points to “an orientation to pedagogy as articulation that runs throughout his work.” Referencing the banal idea that a good teacher starts from “where the student is,” Clarke suggests this notion takes on new political significance in the context of Hall’s approach: “Identities are multiple and rarely fixed; common senses are heterogeneous and fragmentary, and the work of articulation is to build connections that lead towards a set of new configurations and possibilities”.3 This formulation of pedagogy as articulation foregrounds the practice of creating connection amid fragmentation; rather than constituting an obstacle to unity, a recognition of our structurally different and uneven locations creates the conditions for articulating new alignments.

Thinking pedagogically therefore might fill a gap for the theory of articulation: the problem of how articulation happens. Pedagogy provides a mechanism for this process. Pedagogy articulates. In the case of building coalition among differently positioned groups of people, pedagogy is the concrete function of articulation: what really ends up happening when someone or some group articulates. Take a group of people who want to end racism on campus, like in the Ellsworth example. This shared desire alone isn’t sufficient for building relations of activism that will end racism. Something else has to happen. That something else is pedagogy, which articulates their different positions in such a way as to get them – at that time in that place – to collective action. The DSA Praxis slate had this notion, but instead of a university classroom, they used it to think about the DSA and US left in its current configuration. In each case, pedagogy facilitates unity in differences that can result in collective action, without being held hostage by the difference itself.

Ultimately, our proposal is a theory of movement pedagogy as articulation, yielding a coalition between the universal and the particular. This coalition praxis demands a pedagogy that articulates the fragments of difference towards collectives that can take power and make gains for our communities.

Whereas universalism constructs flattening generalities and identity deconstructs wholes into fragmented histories and experiences, we propose a rearticulation process: acknowledge differences, permit fragments to break apart, and then work with the pieces to build a collective aiming at liberatory change. Universalism and identity can work together as concepts – since they do in reality.

As a coda, consider the effects of impasse. Isaac Gottesman, in his recent historical account of the critical turn in education, traces the responses to Ellsworth’s article in the critical pedagogy literature. What he found were reactions that – strongly worded and lengthy as they were – never responded to Ellsworth’s claims seriously, on their own terms. The consequences of this specific standstill in educational theory were esoteric: feminist and poststructural research on pedagogy flourished, and critical pedagogy continued more or less as it had been. The division largely remains in place today.

The stakes for our historical moment are much greater. The standstill that emerges when class universalist positions refuse to recognize the importance of radical identity politics will have consequences for the left, particularly in the United States. If we want to mobilize a broad base to fight in the struggles of this new moment, our organizing strategies and movement spaces must attend to these differences. Universality and identity need each other for organizing, and Ellsworth’s method shows us how to put that coalition into practice.

  1. There are many examples available of thinking pedagogically. A recent episode of the socialist feminist podcast Season of the Bitch is a good recent example: the hosts talk extensively about reading dense theoretical texts as leftists and women. In terms we’ve used, they consider the material conditions of activism, the relations of activism, in this case the practice of reading difficult things. Lauren Berlant does the same for joking in this incisive piece

  2. Stuart Hall and Lawrence Grossberg, “On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall,” Journal of Communication Studies 10.2 (1986): 53. 

  3. See John Clarke, “Stuart Hall and the Theory and Practice of Articulation,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 36.2 (2015): 281. 

Authors of the article

is an assistant professor of education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

is an assistant professor in the department of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden.