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Down with Activism; Up with Revolution

Having been part of the mainstream left for years––roaming between organizations, marching with various contingents in demonstrations, participating in social unionism in different ways, joining affinity groups, losing sleep over meetings––I have had enough time to grow increasingly frustrated with activist culture.  It is unsurprising that so many activists either burn-out or turn into banal social democrats.  Once I used to feel as if those who dropped out were guilty of political betrayal, but now it is difficult to see their decision as much more than a product of the culture cultivated by leftwing activism at the centres of capitalism.

There is a rather particular attitude cultivated by activist culture.  Infantile, self-righteous, judgmental, and above all a lack of self-criticism.  By focusing on the problems with society (sometimes correctly, sometimes incoherently) it is easy to imagine that we are pure––smarter and better than the ignorant masses who often lack the same opportunities and time to be part of a largely student, academic, or at least upper strata (unionized) sectors of the working class.  Often petty-bourgeois in the worst possible way, we focus on banal "anti-oppression" concepts that tend to preserve oppression and solidify divisions––the practice of criticism/self-criticism that is designed to create ideological and practical unity is treated as antiquated, unknown, or somehow "oppressive".  We imagine that we are extremely critical rebels even when we adopt the most mainstream notions of rebellion, liberal ideology dressed up as radical.

More importantly: we imagine that we are revolutionaries when we are nothing more than temporary rebels.  Activism is far from revolution, and the left at the centres of capitalism is dominated by activists and activist groups––NOT revolutionaries and revolutionary movements.  The most popular and predictable activist strategies, which haven't changed or succeeded since the 1960s, are constantly re-imagined in an amnesiatic haze as "new" and "important".  Serious revolutionary strategies, proven by history and still the concrete practice of those engaged in the most developed revolutionary struggles, are scornfully misunderstood by the semi-liberal and semi-anarchist ideology of those activists who disdain formal structure and foolishly imagine that their beautiful anti-vanguard spontaneity will one day succeed where it has always failed.

(On a related note, it is worth checking out a recent Signalfire post complaining about activist obsessions with new theories that are neither new and are really only "tediously opportunist" and that echoed some of my own complaints, most recently the one about organization, in less long-winded manner.  The author rightly concludes "revolutionary theory worthy of consideration is the product of successful revolutionary practice and nothing else.  It's not a question of restricting oneself to a closed canon; we are happy to pay close attention to the writings of Amilcar Cabral, for example, because he won a war.")

Activist circles, always rotating but always the same despite arguments to the contrary, tend to be insipid little spaces where everyone imagines they are participating in something big and liberatory when they are [correction: we are] students playing at revolution.  The spaces remain the same spaces that just self-replicate different versions of the same movement, never growing beyond a predominantly petty-bourgeois population; the strategies are different variations of previous strategies; no one has to ask the hard questions about what pursuing a revolution means because the strategies and ideology are such that both the questions and the answers are blocked by a pseudo-anarchist and semi-autonomist discourse of building coalitions, non-heirarchical structures, and unscientific/ahistorical metaphors that sound good but mean nothing (i.e. "we're all drops of rain and together we'll add up to a great flood of freedom").

Moreover, the petty individualism and cliqueism fostered in the activist scene demonstrates the petty-bourgeois and opportunist boundaries of our politics.  Those who use the right words, dress in the proper manner, chalk-up temporary arrests that everyone else has to work hard to fight, and who can generate the proper amount of activist cool are allowed to label themselves "revolutionary".  But you're not revolutionary if you're playing the same tired activist game: if you're just organizing affinity groups, if your demos are about social democratic rights, if you're refusing to involve yourself in revolutionary discipline, if you're twisting identity politics discourses in order to hide the fact that your parents are wealthy and paying for your condo, if you are incapable of self-criticism, and if you have never once tried to work in a revolutionary structure that asks the hard questions, and tries to solve these questions, about revolutionary war and seizing state power.

The first time I ever met a revolutionary I was shocked at the gap between our practice at the centres of capitalism and her practice on the peripheries.  This was back when the revolution in Nepal was still at its apex, before the party had begun to demonstrate the degeneration that might now cause it to falter and die, and the revolutionary in question was Hisila Yami (Comrade Parvati) who was visiting Toronto to discuss the current moment in Nepal's revolution.  Here was a revolutionary who had participated in a protracted peoples war, who had used her experience in this war to write revolutionary theory about gender and revolution, and her behaviour and attitude was alien to the pseudo-revolutionary subjectivity of the activists I had known.  Humility and discipline, criticism and self-criticism, an unflinching attitude towards the need for communism, a unity of theory and practice, and most importantly a refusal to be arrogant when she was firm.  Since then I have encountered and worked with other people with a similar stance, a professionalism towards revolution that does not reduce it to a student game, and I really hope that I can learn from these people so that one day I can shed my own petty-bourgeois activist ideology and practice which has become severely habitual.

When I think back to the anti-globalization movement, and the 2001 FTAA protests in Quebec City, I am only appreciative of the fact that I was further radicalized.  Thankfully my experiences in this movement eventually led me to ask why it produced nothing significant in a revolutionary sense, despite historically revisionist claims to the latter, and why a mass movement was incapable of doing anything except having multiple massive demonstrations and then falling apart on September 11, 2001. Here was a movement that had its leaders, though it pretended otherwise, an in-group of cliquish activists who imagined that they were revolutionary but who mistook revolution for running around in tear-gas and screaming that "the whole world is watching."  If they were proper revolutionaries they would have tried to have some foresight, tried to turn this movement into something sustainable that could actually try and produce revolution––but if you aren't interested in the practical and concrete questions surrounding revolutionary struggle, the questions every significant revolutionary movement has had to ask and try to answer, and imagine it's just going to happen like a beautiful flood composed of unique raindrops, then you're not performing revolution.  You're performing protest and activism, and maybe you should be blamed for having allowed a movement die because you wouldn't allow it to be properly structured.

For your theory is not revolutionary if it tells you exactly what you want to believe: that the seizure of power isn't necessary, that you can keep doing the same micro-politics you've always done and that ultimately changes nothing––that speaks of a better world but allows for the persistence of this world by refusing to approach the strategy of revolutionary war in a coherent manner.  Nor are you revolutionary––nor am I revolutionary––because of a blog that talks about these things, a prolonged involvement in internet debates, and/or a website substituted for a concrete organization.


  1. Great post. Also, I thought for a second the image above was you! It kindof looks like you.

    1. Well considering I kind of dress like – except for the fact that the pant size and cut is a few years out of date.

  2. Agree mostly except for this:

    "Nor are you revolutionary––nor am I revolutionary––because of a blog that talks about these things, a prolonged involvement in internet debates, and/or a website substituted for a concrete organization."

    This is mistaking the tool - the tactics - for the action - the strategy - and for the direction and purpose - the line.

    Any organization that is a real organization in the world today - including the periphery/third world - takes the internet seriously as a tool.

    I do agree with the point that using the tool doesn't make it automatically revolutionary - just like taking an ak-47 and shooting doesn't make you a revolutionary - the substitution is not direct.

    Concrete organization has no prescriptions - if OWS teaches anything, is this very fact: twitter can be more powerful than 100 Central Committee notes if the line matches the people.

    That is not to say we should over-rate technology, just that we shouldn't under rate it: for going into endless weekly meetings can be an encumberment for organizing if there is stasis and attachment to tools rather than strategy and line.

    1. I'm in complete agreement with you, but this is not what I meant by that sentence. Probably could have been written better, but if read in the context of the post it is saying that if your entire strategy of being "revolutionary" relies only on a blog or a web presence (i.e. "The Activists"), and that this presence is not a reflection of concrete engagement in a revolutionary process but rather reifies it to the realm of internet ideological production. Yes these things can be important tools, but I would say the same thing about older technology: so, likewise, if you were producing a lot of pamphlets in the early twentieth century but your practice was limited to pamphlet production itself, then you're not engaged in revolution.

    2. Monkey Smashes KeyboardApril 12, 2012 at 2:55 AM

      What? so the leading light communist organization is not the new vanguard taking us into the brilliant communist future?

  3. Great post. I put it on mine.

    Consider yourself having a new comrade subscribed.

  4. Jamila, you are absolutely right about this. I would just ad that we need to be activists now so we can be effective revolutionaries later. Its like singing in the shower, riding with training wheels or water wings. You are not actually performing, riding or swimming but you are building the muscles that will help you perform, ride and swim like organizing prepares us to make important decisions in a revolutionary moment. That is why we need a specific organization to hold onto the lessons of history and our individual experiences. The lack of a long term perspective pushes people to burn out and drop out of organizing. The point of a revolutionary organization is to maintain a level of org for those upsurges in order to educate, collect and maintain for the long term a revolutionary outlook. Maybe you have heard/read it before but there is a quote from a marxist (I can never remember who, lenin or marx himself I think) that describes a revolutionary party like a piece of memory wire. The lessons from the movement represent the kinks in the wire that can be straightened out if need be, but when heat is applied all the kinks reappear. In other words, a revolutionary party's (or org) role is to be the memory of the working class. Capitalism is constantly pulling the wire straight through the education system, co. media and so on. Spikes in activism and crisis (revolutionary or not) is the heat applied. Wire without heat memory will gain kinks in moments like this but soon become pulled straight again, needing to be reshaped from scratch every time. Whereas a memory wire snaps into proper shape with heat.

    Ha, I didn't mean to be so long winded. Hopefully we can continue the discussion in person soon!

    1. Thanks for the comment, though my name is not Jamila, lol... Did you intend this comment for someone else, or assume this someone wrote this article on the blog? Whatever the case, you've added a good comment that makes excellent points. I agree with these points, obviously, because they are good points. The general point, as I'm sure you agree, is about whether or not the activist outlook is limited, and the problem with mistaking a limited activist [movementist] approach to capitalism as being by itself revolutionary.

      Besides, once we start talking about revolutionary organizations we're stuck with the problem of dealing with the existing organizations, all of whom claim they're the legitimate vanguard though so many of them haven't been doing anything except selling newspapers at student demonstrations for the past fifty years and wasting their time attacking each other. Faced with this, it's no wonder people get caught on the level of limited activism.

    2. Oh! My bad. I actually realized that you were not who I thought you were when I was looking for a response to my post. I found this post via a post in someone's blog that I actually know. haha.

      I completely agree. That is the problem with how people view being revolutionary. All current movements in the U.S. I believe do lack a revolutionary perspective but I do think there is potential to foster that outlook in what is I think is starting to develop into a serious new left out of Occupy and sections of the pre-existing left being re energized. Mistakenly, in my opinion, many new and veteran activists saw this past fall as a "revolutionary" moment. I believe that we are just starting to enter into a period in which revolution will seem much more possible and necessary than the one we just have experienced. Some moments will seem like revolution and will not be and conversely, there will be moments that are in fact revolutionary that do not appear to be so. The true revolutionary moments in which there is potential for more than shallow reforms of capitalism will be worth less without an organization (or probably organizations) confident and intelligent enough to accomplish taking down the system.

      As a member of socialist organization that I know agrees with this outlook, that does not now claim to be the vanguard and to the best of my knowledge has never claimed that, that no such organization exists now. Stalinism's legacy certainly has contributed greatly to this development of limited consciousness as well as deranged the way the generations before mine have approached socialism.

      I continue to be a member not because we are the vanguard but because without any kind of organization even trying to collect the forces that does indeed represent the developing vanguard (which you can not have without mass movements like we finally are starting to see now) is worth my effort as a serious Marxist. It is not enough for me to stand aside from organizing and critic what others do, without revolutionary organization I am just talking about theories. There is no vehicle to test the validity of these theories otherwise. On my own, like you have argued, we are doomed to work within struggles for reforms that we know are band-aides on wounds where stitches are needed. Furthermore we are surrounded by people whose perspectives are "caught on the level of limited activism" which, sounds like you know this, can be incredibly demoralizing.

      I am not sure if we, the International Socialist Org, were one of the groups you were referring to, but I can ASSURE you that we do not claim to be the vanguard and we are actively involved in organizing within movements for reforms from Anti-War to Occupy to Divestment from Israel to Anti-Death Penalty work and Union solidarity organizing.

    3. First of all, I've made the same mistake. The blogosphere is such that sometimes repostings are easily mistaken as belonging to the blog on which they first emerge.

      Secondly, I wasn't referring to the IS/SWP here. (Despite some of my past and negative experiences with the IS in my context, and the fact that I feel Trotskyism is generally as much of a dead-end as Stalinism, I know a lot of ISers and former ISers I count as comrades.) And in fact, I don't have a problem with groups emerging that claim to want to build a vanguard as long as they do it principally: in a clear manner that actually attempts to build a mass-line but is willing to work with other "competing" groups and will grow through their activities. I was referring more to the cultic "pure" marxist groups (i.e. Spartacist League), the other extreme of the spontaneist/movementist types. [And in my undergrad days I was even, briefly, an IS member. Although I reject them theoretically/ideologically, I never once felt they were uber-sectarian "we are the true and pure vanguard" types.]

      Thirdly, I'm in complete agreement with what you say about the occupy movement, and wrote about it on various points here in a manner that attempted to bring more nuance to things. The organization I'm associated with in this country involved itself as best as it could, in a principled manner, without drinking the kool-aid. Our slogan was "it's right to rebel but it's better to make revolution" but we weren't assholes about it, even though some people were online assholes to us, lol.

      Finally, I don't know if the failure of past attempts at communism can be chalked up simply to "Stalinism" because I feel that, if this is the claim, you have to say what Stalinism is and the reduction of said ideology simply to the formula "socialism in one country" (which was never simply Stalin, and never really meant what it is now claimed to have meant), or "Stalin was a bad guy" (because I think, post-Lenin, Trotsky would have made similar errors in the Soviet Union since his core theory was mimetically similar) doesn't cut it. Stalin was a bad Leninist and there is really no ideology, in my opinion, that we can call "Stalinism" accept for some pretty crude attempts to make sense of Trotskyism. One of the reasons I tend to define as a Maoist is because I feel that the successes of the Chinese revolution, along with its eventual failure under Deng, actually produced the theory that could explain the failure of actually existing socialism (and thus give us insights about how to recover), both in Russia and even in China. The GPCR, after all, demonstrated the understanding of possible failure but was too little, too late, and the revolutionary forces lost, but in losing demonstrated what I think is an important universal point: after the dictatorship of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie ends up within the party and class struggle continues under socialism. Not because of "external agents", as Stalin erroneously believed, but because the anti-socialist ideology remains and even influences well-intentioned cadres. But I've discussed this at various points on this blog, so I won't explain it further here.

    4. Correction "except... to make sense of Leninism." Fast writing and hitting *post* before editing generally cause me to make some pretty non-sensical statements!


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