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Our Infantile Activism

My previous entry, the report on the 2nd Canadian Revolutionary Congress, caused me to reflect on my history with activist organizations, affinity groups, and my own union local.  Although I have had many wonderful, politicizing, and fulfilling experiences working with collectives ranging from Al-Awda to the grass-roots working groups of my local, they were still ultimately unsatisfying due to the lack of overall revolutionary vision/strategy and the general behaviour of the activists towards each other.  So many of us have walked away from these movements, jaded and exhausted, because they tend to use people up and promote petty bourgeois arrogance.
I know a lot of activists who used to do very good work––and in many ways still do good work––but who are now obsessed with running their little leftist fiefdoms.  Who have risen to positions of authority within their groups, sometimes at the expense of the invisible labour of others.  Who lack any vision beyond their organization, waste their time in leftist turf wars, and push people out for unprincipled reasons.  I try to avoid these people now, annoyed that their personal behaviour is paradigmatic of the oppression they are supposed to be fighting.  Like capitalists, they tend to believe that their “radical” accomplishments are due to their own efforts, not because of all the largely ignored and undervalued work of the people who have come before them or who are working under and alongside them.

How do these people come to prominence and how is their arrogant behaviour promoted?  Sometimes they do good work, are good organizers and speakers.  Other times they just happen to be in the right place at the right time: they demonstrate enough courage by fighting with the cops, or they’re among those at an action who are arrested.  When the charges are overturned people emerge with an aura of revolutionary credit and we hang on their words as if, just by being arrested in an action that would never lead to the overthrow of the state in the first place, they are someone better and more committed than anyone else.

My jaded activist self is generally tired of encountering young activists (most often young men) who think they are god’s-gift to the left.  The number of times I have encountered someone in their early 20s who believes his ideas are unique, that his actions are changing the world, and who wants to preach the revolution to me without even knowing anything about my experience and my understanding is astounding.  Lacking institutional memory, and believing that the history of activism begins with their actions, these arrogant young harbingers of petty bourgeois radicalism believe they have complete authority in the realm of anti-capitalism simply because they were arrested in some random action or someone gave them a microphone at a demonstration.  

Two years ago, for example, I remember encountering a young man who accosted my partner for not being “radical enough” simply because she was wearing a pin that might or might not have advocated reformist politics.  Since this was the first time he had met either of us he had no idea of our politics, of our past involvement with local activism, or that she was mainly wearing the pin because of the requirements of her job––you know, those requirements that mean having food on the table and a roof over your head.  And yet he felt like he had the right, without knowing anything about her or why she was wearing the button to begin with (she just came from a work meeting and had to act in a certain professional manner because of work pressures), to deliver a self-righteous and condescending speech.  But let’s be fair: perhaps we were angered by his preachy arrogance because it was an echo of our past behaviour––that infantile radicalism that we all go through at one point, when we are first discovering radical ideas.  Sometimes we reject this infantilism for a more mature radicalism.  Other times we remain arrogant and uncritical of our behaviour, refusing to grow up.  And still other times, we “grow up” in a different way: we reject radicalism altogether and settle for a comfortable liberal perspective of the world.

The unwillingness and inability to institute structures of self-criticism in these organizations has always been a serious problem.  As has been the fear of theory and a unifying ideology.  Both of these aspects drive people away from activism: the arrogance is alienating; the lack of theoretical understanding, and a knee-jerk hatred of intellectualism, prevents activists from knowing the terms of their activism and why they’re committed to anti-capitalism.  

The first problem, self-criticism, is often not even judged as a problem by activist organizations.  In a previous entry I discussed how Mao’s “Combat Liberalism” was treated as passe and mocked by activist acquaintances.  So many of us believe that because we’re already committed to anti-oppression politics that we are beyond criticism.  When others complain about our behaviour our first reaction is to defend ourselves rather than accept criticism, to fall unto political posturing and dismiss every critique.  Anti-oppression training, which was perhaps a once vital attempt to re-instill self-criticism in the left, often devolves into pity parties and hippy sharing sessions––and when this type of training does become critical of our behaviour we dismiss it as “useless.”

The second problem, theoretical maturity, is the reason why so many groups and their participants cannot conceptualize the terms of their struggle beyond banal moralism.  For if you cannot conceptualize a rejection of capitalism along scientific lines, and can only make appeals to a nebulous morality, you are incapable of knowing what you’re against and what the alternatives can be.  Being against capitalism for ethical reasons is a good starting point, but if we don’t ask ourselves about the foundation for this ethics, or why capitalism is wrong for reasons that are larger than simple morality, then we can just lapse into a reformist attitude and, in our later years, end up imagining the (false) possibility of a more humane capitalism.

On the other hand, over-theorizing anti-capitalism has led to a radical paralysis where book and essay [or blog!] writing replaces practical action.  For those of us who believe correct ideas come from praxis, confining ourselves solely to pseudo-agitation in journals and classrooms is a serious problem.  In fact, it might be part of the reason why so many activists reject theoretical maturity as “armchair” behaviour.  (At the same time, though, I am also tired of hearing young activists denounce people as “armchairs” without knowing anything about their possible past activist experience.)

Maybe everything I’m describing is connected to living in the centre of world capitalism where the contradictions––the contradictions viscerally experienced by the majority of the world’s population––are muted by the imperialist-influenced culture industry and the subsequent labour aristocracy consciousness.  But if these problems are the result of living in the imperialist centres, it is our job to understand them concretely rather than act as if we have to know nothing but the most abstract understanding of what is good and bad.


  1. Being against capitalism for ethical reasons is a good starting point, but if we don’t ask ourselves about the foundation for this ethics, or why capitalism is wrong for reasons that are larger than simple morality, then we can just lapse into a reformist attitude and, in our later years, end up imagining the (false) possibility of a more humane capitalism

    What are these foundation for this ethics and what others reasons capitalism is wrong that we can say?

  2. Agreed... The issue of having a foundation for an anti-capitalist ethics is a big issue, and one that I've spent a lot of time working on in my academic career. Clearly there's the humanist answer (which I think does lead to the reformist attitude), but then the opposite answer - the Althusserian rejection of the human subject - lacks any potential for creating an ethics, or giving us reason to say "we should overthrow capitalism because of x." (Simply saying it is not sustainable without destroying the world is also not ethical unless there is an ethical reason for the world to continue existing.)

    I think the answer is in having a dialectical materialist notion of the human subject that, contra-Althusser, we find in Marx: the human as the social animal, humanity as a species that produces history while, at the same time, it is produced by history. And this leads us to understanding the relationship between freedom and necessity (that Engels discussed in Anti-Duhring), as well as conceptualizing historically encountered needs that define what it means to be human... and thus understand the ethical dimension: capitalism is something that is against our needs as a species, divides us into classes, produces difference, etc., etc.

    At the same time, and as mentioned above, simply theorizing an ethical dimension will not lead people into embracing this anti-capitalist ethic. You can explain to people the reasons why capitalism is wrong but, just like explaining to them it's also unsustainable (the socialism or barbarism argument), you won't necessarily convince them. Hence the need, at the end of the day, for revolution.


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