Activism or Revolution?: Deciphering Modern Forms of ResistanceKevin Bailey I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I June 9th, 2016
Here in the United States, and the global North in general, there is a lack of clarity regarding activism and revolutionary activity, in fact one is often confused for the other. This is part and parcel of our post-modern condition in which every action, no matter how small, has the intrinsic property of being in and of itself a revolutionary act simply by rejecting dominant cultural narratives or withdrawing from participation in politics, for example. Lifestyle choices like veganism, ethical consumerism, buying fair-trade, or a simple rejection of politics in general, have become substitutes for a political line in many circles on the Left. A negation is thus inverted into a positive affirmation in which the mere act of verbal rejection, or non-participation, or withdrawal/retreat is treated as a substantive revolutionary act. Furthermore, what matters is one's membership to a micro-community, one's inward beliefs and values, and one's outward appearance and individual actions. There is no emphasis on a political and individual transformation in connection to a larger collectivity struggling for general emancipation. That is not to neglect the importance of smaller communities that often do serve the important function of providing personal assistance, empowerment, and support networks to marginalized communities, but rather, that these variants of lifestylism or micro-communities, if self-isoloated and not linked up to a broad emancipatory struggle, are not revolutionary but separatist. And not only that, but as de-politicized and isolated phenomena they can never be revolutionary, only expressions of petty-bourgeois individualism thoroughly tinged with accommodationist leanings towards bourgeois society, or a general apathy or cynicism towards mass struggle and politics.
Of course this notion of a withdrawal, or separation, from political life and struggle, to a retreat into the confines of a self-isolated community mirrors the transformation of bourgeois democracy in the global North from traditional social democratic models of supposedly inclusivist participation to the "low intensity" democracy of neoliberalism. With the prevalence of micro-struggles and a general receding of participatory channels for democratic expression as the State is literally, and quite physically, deconstructed, the notion of activism itself has been transformed. Previously what it meant to be an activist was someone who had been transformed politically, either through a long struggle or through a "revelatory" event (think of the young people who were radicalized by seeing the mass killings in Vietnam on television), and then submerged themselves in the stream of the mass movements and participated in the class struggle for definite political ends. Now activism has become a rejection of political transformation, because it is a rejection of the politicization of things themselves, it is the anti-politics.
Anyone who has witnessed a picket, protest, or rally in recent decades has probably witnessed the following: people standing around holding signs with vague slogans devoid of political content, a few chants lazily cast skyward, and a few raised fists as people march, or even worse, attendees standing silently while listening to some half-dead academic speak on the issue of the day. Of course after all of this is said and done we can wash our hands of guilt, since we did something, we acted, (after all, doing something is better than nothing, right?), and that makes us better than those who did nothing or are ignorant of our cause. But that's the problem, activists have become so satisfied with doing something that they have forgotten to stop and ask the "whys" and the "whats" of that something. Asking that question, which was asked by the activists that came before us, leads straight towards a universalization of struggle, away from separatism and towards political transformation. It leads to class struggle. And why does it lead there? Because a collective conceptualization of your struggle necessitates you grappling with your struggle's relation to all other struggles. Its recognition is anathema to separatism, apathy, cynicism, and identity politics, it leads to a general theorization of a linking up of seemingly disparate micro-struggles, to the recognition of their role in the mass struggle, which in our capitalist world is the class struggle.
Counter to activism, revolutionary activity requires politicization, it requires the revolutionizing of an individual. To most students, thoroughly ingrained with petty-bourgeois ideology, the notion of the necessity of transformation and of incorporating one's own personal or community struggles into a larger struggle screams of an oppressive totalization and marginalization. However, disregarding the rejection in toto of all totalities as being a totalization itself, the notion that one's own struggles have to take a subordinate role, or backseat, to some other issue is missing the point, as well as implicitly privileging one's own struggle over other's. A revolutionary struggle, unlike an activist struggle, is totalizing in that it is the sum total of all oppressed people's struggles for liberation linked and forged through direct experience. This is not a negative as the post-modernist dread of totalization would have us believe, it is a positive. And it is a positive because mass revolutionary, not activist, struggles have led to the liberation of hundreds of millions of people historically (the revolutions in Russia and China freed over 600 million people, across both countries, from the yoke of capitalism, semi-feudalism, and imperialism). Yet, what has the activist line produced? Micro-struggles that lead to gradual reform measures to better the lot of a particular oppressed group while another oppressed group is ignored, until of course their own micro-struggle emerges to lessen their oppression (because it would be "oppressive" or "totalizing" if these two struggles were linked since one is not a direct member of the other's oppressed community or group).
In my own organization, as well as countless others, there is a contradiction between an activist line and a revolutionary line. Or, more specifically, between the line expressing a desire for a depoliticized and loose grouping that wishes to do nothing more than protest this or that, and the line of those who wish to politicize themselves and the masses and march forward towards organizing and building for collective liberation. This activist line must be struggled against, and those who uphold it must be won over to the revolutionary line and be convinced of the necessity of its application. While activism bills itself as the most revolutionary trend, in that it rejects politicization and mass struggle in favor of micro-struggles, inward looking personal development, and depoliticized spaces, it is thoroughly anti-revolutionary. Not only because it opposes the revolutionary line elaborated on here, but because it cannot lead towards a liberation from the oppression that it seeks to end by the methods it employs. While the activist Left in Western Europe and North America continues to naval gaze and search for anti-political solutions to political problems, revolutionaries in India, Turkey, Afghanistan, and the Philippines are seeking to storm heaven, to capture State power and free millions from the chains of capitalism, imperialism, patriarchal oppression, and semi-feudal conditions. They are revolutionaries, not activists.
We must grapple with the fact that our own approach has produced nothing more than a few isolated apparent victories that have done nothing more than ameliorate our existing conditions. We have rejected politics in favor of being cynical or apathetic, we have discarded parties and organization in favor of disunity and a deified decentralization, we have unspokenly privileged our own struggle over those of others, and we have done all of this as the State and capitalism continue their assault on us. We have voluntarily dismantled our own power, our own defense, in the face of the neoliberal offensive and called it liberation. We were wrong, activism was wrong, and it has proven to be a dead end. It may not be easy for many of today's activists to admit this, but it is a political necessity to self-criticize and transform oneself politically in the service of the masses. It's time to come out of the ivory towers, come out of the hermetically sealed safe spaces, come out of our own self-imposed ideological and political exile and step into the class struggle and serve the people. It's time to integrate ourselves with the masses and cast aside petty-bourgeois illusions of separatism, apathy, and cynicism and say that we won't settle for anything less than total emancipation and a destruction of the old society through our collective power. Most importantly, it's time to become a revolutionary in the service of the oppressed peoples, to become more than just the chanter or sign holder that is the activist, to transform oneself politically to fight for liberation. To this I say down with activism, and up with revolution.
This piece was originally published at Necessity and Freedom.