The radical scholarship I yearn for…

I’m getting more and more excited by some of the scholarship and discourse happening in anti-authoritarian radical circles lately. With Oppose and Propose in the mail, having seen Team Colors speak in Detroit, reading Upping the Anti, Left-Turn, Advance the Struggle, Gathering Forces, I see lots of people of roughly my same generation wrestling with the same questions that I’ve been wrestling with on this blog.

What’s particularly exciting to me is that as the debates and investigations simmer, the questions become more focused, more specific and, thankfully, more testable. What was once just sort of a general clamoring to “think strategically,” to “move from resistance to revolution,” to grow “from protest hopping to building local power,” has refined itself into wonderfully substantive questions of concrete organizational forms; approaches to conflict, healing, and care; stances in relation to electoral power, dual power, non-profits, and unions; strategic international alliances, etc. I think we are at a point where thoughtful, creative, and disciplined radical scholars could really do some good research and get us some really useful data.

In fact, the only reason we have gotten this far is because radical thinkers, both outside and inside the academy, have been persistent enough to form these questions…evolving research to the point where the qualitative sort of movement observations, interviews, syntheses can soon launch into more quantitative types of research. As critical of revolutionary academics as I am–partly out of my own envy for not going that route myself–I am so thankful that we’ve gotten to this point.

But now the challenge of these newer types of scholarship looms large.

See, what I’m now really interested in is numbers and measurements. It feels weird to say it, but I am. Like Andrea Smith from Incite! Women of Color Against Violence has talked about, I don’t think we’re honest enough about what’s working and what isn’t. Both to sustain our reputations, our self-images, and our funding, we radicals gloss over our work, and whether its truly effective. We are so vocal and frankly so self-satisfied that we’re even doing the work and articulating it–which does deserve real affirmation in this hard world, I should say–that we spend far too little time on meaningful evaluation. We say things like, “I’m really inspired doing youth work,” “I’ve been really focusing on anti-violence work for 10 years,” “I’ve really had a lot of experience running action campaigns,” but we rarely evaluate how successful this work is, beyond how it makes us feel. How many community accountability processes are actually successful? How many revolutionary organizations last more than five years? What is our organizations’ attrition rates, and rates of new leadership? I believe that the vast majority of radicals experiences are those of failure. I really do. Sure, we learn tons of lessons, but that’s exactly my point! Let’s get some scholarship on this, so that we can really quantify those lessons! And since I’m probably full of it and just haven’t done the research myself, someone point me to the scholarship that’s already out there!!

How many radical collectives are there in the US? What’s the breakdown by ideology? Is it different geographically? What’s the membership growth rate, the attrition rate, the average age and demographic breakdown? What victories have we seen, and what kinds of victories have they been? How many people are experimenting consciously with dual-power, and how many are doing campaign work focused on winning reforms from targets? What curriculums are proving effective? How do we measure the success of radical curriculum in the first place? What are people reading and how are they sharing it? What are the best practices for handling conflict? What are examples of actually radicalizing non-subcultural people? What is the effective meeting size for authentically practicing democracy? What kind of preparations do people need from a variety of educational levels to feel fully empowered to participate equally in democratic groups? What are the best practices for transformative justice and what’s the “recidivism rate” for aggressors who’ve participated in those processes?

Obviously, this is data that those in power might already have or really want, so trying to get it for ourselves could be a double-edged sword. But that’s how many movement scholarship goes, and in the end I think it would be ridiculously helpful.

As much as my alternative, free-school loving, anti-academic self hates to admit it, solid data is crucial to building power. We need to be learning what’s working and what’s not. What’s actually helping people build power and what’s not. And what, concretely, numerically, does the exercise of popular power look like? The gathering and use of that data is also something we could really learn from the electoral politics people, since they live and breathe all that demographic data, micro-targeting, district breakdowns and all that stuff.

This all reminds me of something my friend Erik Dreyer said to me once back in high school about the difference between skiing and snowboarding. Skiing, Erik argued was a sport to be taken seriously, whereas snowboarding was still just a hobby. He said that in ski races, the winners were determined by the measurement of micro-seconds, whereas in snowboarding the winners were still seconds apart. When snowboard races were down to the tenths or even hundredths place on the stopwatch, he said, then snowboarding could be considered a sport.

I don’t know if I agree with him, but I do think this carries over to us in radical politics. It is when we can know and speak to our successes and our failures in a refined way, with knowledge and data to back it up, that we will know that we have transcended the game and mere identity of revolutionaries into the serious and lasting building of power. I think we are getting there, at least a good couple hundred, maybe thousands of us across the country. But we’ve got to keep on pushing it.

—An important side point—

Within this is all is a big self-critique as well. I think one reason that I have avoided further academics and real scholarship is my lack of discipline in my own study. For some reason, despite always getting nearly flawless grades, I never picked up good organizational or study skills. I don’t take notes on my reading, almost ever. I don’t highlight or mark readings in any way. I read things–essays, books, etc–entirely, and then usually respond from memory. Which means that in spaces of writing, especially this blog, I don’t reference many people or really speak to their specific quotes or points, but instead just my general memories of their points. It’s sloppy, and it frustrates me.

This is something that I really want to improve about myself and my writing. I want to learn good study habits, good organizational skills, so that I can actually participate in these growing debates and studies with confidence. Because currently I feel like I’m running alongside a slowly accelerating train of radical thinking. I’ve been able to keep up from my casual little blog in my casual little radical lifestyle because the whole discourse has been moving so slowly…but now that the theory and the learning is speeding up, I fear that I’ll be left behind, alone with increasingly crackpot and outdated theories. In order to avoid that, to stay engaged, I want to really get some of these skills down!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


Jeremy, I’m totally with you on this yearning for evaluation. To my mind, this is only partly about numbers, quantitative measurements, etc. Just as much, I think it’s about building a culture of collective evaluation at every level – from small-scale projects and groups (where, too often, we only do evaluation informally and/or after we’re totally burnt out and alienated) to large-scale movement spaces, like the Social Forum. I see only a handful of examples of people doing this sort of evaluation, unfortunately. And I’m not putting myself forward as some great success in this regard – I frequently fail to prioritize evaluation too.

Thanks for the comment, as always, Chris!

Yeah, I really like that about building more of a culture of evaluation across movement spaces. That really is a big piece of what I’d like to see, in addition to quantitative stuff.

I was just talking with someone else today about the breaking up of groups and how those break-ups end up getting documented, not only with people already being burned out and sort of mentally checked out, but also often with key dynamics–usually interpersonal dynamics and very often involving sexual politics–removed from the documentation in order to avoid further drama or just because we’re ” just done dealing with it.” What ends up happening over the course of years is that we read about all these projects historically and we think they are faltering around points of structure and political disagreements–which, of course also plays a big part–when really there was this whole other layer of conflict that we don’t read or hear about. That’s why I like reading books like Intimate Politics which give a sense that there were so many other things going on, so many contradictions in past generations of left activity that we can’t romanticize it. And so, yes, we should keep working on getting better at telling ourselves and each other the truth about our work, so that we can grow from it now, not twenty-thirty years from now when the memoirs come out.

I really like the evaluations and quantitative measurement thought. After reading the Midwest Academy organizing manual, I’ve had a lot of thoughts on this buzzing around my head, and plan to write them up soon.

On failure, I’m reminded of this go / martial arts proverb:

So I think people who steer clear of challenges for fear of failure are completely on the wrong track, but without evaluation and reflection, you’ll never see the fist – and like many most activists eventually get sick of getting hit in the head and give up.

I’ve also been thinking about the idea of playing revolutionary vs. real revolutionary work. As I’ve been getting older and especially now with kids, I see that play is an absolutely essential aspect of education, and also that play *is* serious work. At least I think the simple dichotomy ignores some important truths. First, at the stage we’re in, I think “play” is our only way forward towards “real work”. Also, I think most “serious” revolutionaries are kidding themselves when they think that what they are doing isn’t play – even if real livelihoods and lives are on the line. To some extent we need to be honest with ourselves and see that what we might be able to do in small groups is fundamentally different than what we hope to do after we’ve built a movement. And to some extent we need to lose ourselves in the fiction we create in order to brew up a good batch of stone soup.

The key, though, is to realize that where we’re at is just a point at the wrong end of the road we hope to travel and we’ve got a lot ahead of us. That’s where evaluations are so important. We need to be explicitly aware of some sense of the road ahead of us and some sense of the progress we’re making or we’ll just run around in circles. And the only thing worse than running around in circles, essentially “playing” revolutionary, is to do so with a firm belief that we’re “serious” revolutionaries making great progress, having taken so many steps around that circle.

Greg, I really like your defense of play here! I think the way you’re describing that process of learning and growth is far more helpful than the dichotomy that I was working with. Thank you for that.

This especially speaks to me because I still play all the time! Not just video games and my real-life game, but I actually still just walk through my neighborhood and talk to myself, and actually play out scenarios of occupations and insurrections when I’m alone in the house. That playfulness and imagination has been central to my own growth as a political person. So I don’t want to take up the cause of “serious revolution” if losing that would be a consequence.

However, along with what you’ve said, it’s that question of evaluation and of honesty about the scale of our impact that I think is important, and does make us “serious” revolutionaries. That is, it’s less about how serious our tone is, and more about how serious these questions are, how honest our perspective is. I think we agree on this.