So, like 2 years ago I wrote part 1 of a series of reflections about my time in revolutionary groups. I had part 2 almost done, and I had part 3 outlined…and then I just stopped.
I just found part 2 in my drafts folder. It’s got some interesting stuff that shouldn’t just be forgotten. Here it is.Part 1 focused on lessons around handling conflict. Part 2 is focused on addressing oppression, and then the final part is about improving revolutionary praxis. Like I said in the first part of this series, these are my thoughts as I got them down on the page, and I reserve the right to change them, add to them, and delete them as I feel more clarity.
ADDRESSING OPPRESSION (this is focused on how revolutionary organizations address oppressive dynamics and try to build a liberated culture internally…questions of addressing oppression on the larger scale will be taken up in the next part)
Have a holistic, intersectional perspective. My own political trajectory has taken me all over the map about how I theorize oppression, and whether I think there are core oppressions or linchpin systems or anything. And although I feel fewer and fewer comrades at my side about this, as so many of them move toward more materialist perspectives, I still remain unconvinced that oppression has only one source, one foundation, or one weak point (such as class struggle, white supremacy, patriarchy, etc.).
People are complex, our relationships are complex, and that means our social systems–and the dynamics of hierarchy and oppression underlying them–are complex. It makes perfect sense for radicals to seek out powerful, and efficient means of understanding these systems in order to identify priority areas, and I do think there are priority areas, but in the end I believe that revolutionary organizations are best served by a perspective that acknowledges and seeks to address–at least at the personal level–the ways that power and oppression manifest across all differences of identity and experience. That is, I think organizations should work from a holistic perspective that believes that all forms of oppression need to be addressed simultaneously–even if there are sometimes strategic priorities within that work.
I don’t say this because I believe all struggles are equal in their revolutionary potential, but rather because all forms of oppression actively live, grow, and do their damage within each of us, and we need to build organizations and a revolutionary culture that can hold us and help us heal and grow from where we’re at and what we’re feeling. We need organizations that can see us as whole people, which means we need organizations that can deeply understand the complexity of what keeps us boxed in.
Be clear about how huge and insidious oppressive systems are, in the world and within each of us. This one is pretty straightforward. Oppressions run deep, and the infrastructure that sustains them is ridiculously large and resourceful. We have to be honest with ourselves: this is a long struggle, and there are no magical shortcuts. Even those with an insurrectionist perspective need to recognize this. We will not experience total liberation in our lifetimes, and probably neither will the next few generations. Instead, we will have periods of progress and setbacks, and we will consistently push up against the limits of how fast society can move, and how much personal change is possible over the course of our lives. Within our organizations this means…
It’s important to expect and offer personal accompaniment, but it’s a trap to expect and offer personal liberation. There can be a real cheerleading element to revolutionary work, where, in an effort to stave off feelings of desperation and futility in the face of an overwhelming enemy, we rah rah about will, and transformation, and living completely new lives. This hopefulness is essential–because I do believe that social transformation is possible if we’re able to hold it as a vision–but it can also shoot us in the foot.
Revolutionary organizations–and larger social movements–cannot deliver total personal liberation, and often our cheerleading to the contrary causes us big problems. I would bet that thousands of potential organizers pass by the radical left each year because of the disconnect they see between our lofty promises and ideals and our less-than-stellar, very human realities. People get frustrated when we can’t solve their problems in timely ways, and especially when they see that our organizations and movements can’t alleviate the pain of living in this society.
What we can and should do as organizations is be present with people, and accompany them in their struggles. If a person is abused, downsized, evicted we can’t always win the fight, but we can be there fighting with them, and then–and this is critically important–we can still be there the next day as their comrades and community members. That presence, that essential solidarity is less fancy than the poetry of “build total liberation now,” but it’s far more lasting when things get hard in the movement.
Also, as people within a thoroughly messed up society, we are individually thoroughly messed up. We have weird hangups, prejudices, triggers, desires and compulsions that have evolved out of our daily practices while trying to get by in this world. These are deep within us, and we have to be patient with ourselves and each other as our perfectly clean and clear radical ideals crush up against our dirty and weird realities. That contradiction, and our presence and growth within in it, are the struggle.
Our lives don’t fit in their boxes, so our organizations shouldn’t be boxy. Okay, so our society is constructed around systems of oppression and exploitation that create social dichotomies and then box us into identities based on those dichotomies. At the same time, we know that society’s identity boxes don’t match who we actually are. They are social constructions, which often have been imposed on us through force.
So, if we are seeking to create something new, our organizations are not served by structuring ourselves around those same boxy identity forms that never fit us in the first place. Separatist groups, people of color or white only groups, women only spaces, or other identity based formations that key off of identities that the system made for us are not lasting formations. Sure, they are potentially very important for specific functions and caucus type spaces in order to make space to build skills and consciousness without the disruptive presence of privileged people’s defensiveness or entitlement. That makes sense. But in the end, the movement has to be multiracial–race being a social invention after all–intergenerational, multi-gender, accessible, and even cross class in the sense of multiple layers and cultures within all the non-owning classes.
I believe that building a winning movement means working with each other across identity, seeing and feeling commonality, and even holding each other’s pain–even if we feel that it’s coming from a more “privileged” place than our own.
We are who shows up, and we work from there. There are times when groups have a majority of one or another identity, and if that identity is more on the privileged side of things, then groups can sort of freeze up into this, “if we don’t get more diverse than we can’t do anything.” This is garbage, and it often only leads to either navel-gazing or awkward “diversity recruiting” drives. No thanks.
Instead, when groups gather, they should acknowledge who’s there, honor who’s there, and then have honest conversations about how best to move the group’s work forward. If the group happens to be majority white, for example, that doesn’t mean that the group doesn’t have legitimacy until it meets some quota or something…it still has the potential to do fantastic work. However, the group does need to recognize the dynamics of being majority white, understand why that might be, recognize what unique responsibilities and perspectives such a formation might have, and realize that in the end the group will probably have to dissolve into a larger multiracial organizational form rather than ever having the possibility of recruiting people of color into its existing form. Sure, sometimes groups do need to just dissolve and start from scratch if they are incapable of authentically and respectfully participating in community struggles because of their makeup…but I think the pattern of groups just stopping and starting around purely demographic issues is often a waste of time.
Avoid formulaic and linear conceptions of leadership. This is where my original draft stopped, and I can’t remember what I wanted to say here. Knowing what I think about this topic, I imagine that I wanted to talk about how organizations have many vital tasks to do, some of which are more celebrated than others. Within a group, members have a wide variety of strengths, skills, and interests. These all offer different forms of leadership, many of which are unacknowledged because they aren’t public. This is a classic feminist argument and I don’t need to go deeply into it, but…
The multiple forms and strands that leadership can take in groups can really help a group explode in creative directions if it is nurtured in the right way. Now, if only I remembered all my original thinking about this point!
All the other great reflections I forgot to write down. I can’t remember the specifics, but I know that I wanted to talk more about some of the specifics of personal improvement work vs. public political work. I wanted to talk about specific ways that oppression and superiority get internalized and play out in groups. I wanted to specifically talk about addressing oppressive dynamics in groups. I didn’t get any of that written down. That’s a shame. Right now it’s a school night so I certainly don’t have the energy to remember all this stuff…but here’s hoping that I come back and add more reflections in time.