Seeing the Change We Want to Be

UTA Editorial Committee

As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we are faced with an uncomfortable paradox. On the one hand, the spectre of catastrophe – economic, ecological, social, biological, and nuclear – looms as large as ever. Even in mainstream political discourse, it’s possible to detect a growing sense that we are at a crossroads. And yet, on the other hand, the prospects for initiating the fundamental political and economic transformations required to tackle these problems seem more remote than ever.

The current period is both ominous and full of potential; the appeal of forms of authoritarianism (including fascism) could grow, for example, but so too could democratic pressures for socialist and egalitarian measures. While there may be a widespread sense of powerlessness and hopelessness – a sense that there is no way out – there may also be a growing perception that a great historical opening lies before us. Through this opening, it is possible to dimly perceive the means by which radical, structural transformation could once again be made to seem both feasible and necessary.

Building movements capable of challenging and transforming the systems responsible for our current global predicament requires that we articulate an alternative social order and develop strategies to win it – or at least move closer to it. No less important, as argued in the editorial of Issue 8, is the challenge of constituting a collective subjective force – a “we” – capable of deliberating on and beginning to implement these visions and strategies. Unfortunately, the current state of radical left organization and activism remains woefully inadequate to this task. We have to ask ourselves why it is that, at a moment when our ideas should have broadening appeal, the North American radical left remains in many ways as small, marginal, and ineffective as ever?

Characterizing our movements in this way is not meant to discount the very real work being conducted by groups across the continent. In every issue of UTA, we have been pleased to run reports and analyses of struggles that remind us of all that is – and could be – possible. Nevertheless, the gravity of our present situation demands that we call into question the sufficiency of even these courageous efforts. Why have movements had difficulty growing and sinking deeper roots?

One problem is the rapid turnover in activist scenes and the inability of the radical left to keep more than a fraction of its activists in the long term. People often radicalize in their late teens or early 20s, pass through a number of radical and activist organizations and projects, and then drop out of political activity. Although many of them remain “on the left” in terms of professed beliefs and values, they are not active in explicitly radical organizations. Making a living gets in the way of activist commitments, all the more so because our activist cultures have put a premium on the kind of frenetic, full-time involvement that is unrealistic for most people.

Of course, there’s only so much that can be done to make long-term activism more attractive. It seems inevitable that obstacles to movement-building will remain, that there won’t be an abundance of resources to captivate and sustain people in the movement. But it’s also clear that not all of the obstacles are “external” to left organizations. There are things that we can and must do to facilitate building larger, more effective, and more sustainable movements.

One thing that can be done to make activism more inviting and sustainable is to provide an appealing model of human relations to guide our interactions with each other. One suggestion for how this can be done has been to take friendship more seriously within our movements. All too often, activists mimic broader society by treating each other instrumentally, bracketing those aspects of people’s lives that don’t relate directly to political activism, dismissing concerns about oppression, or simply by being nasty and inconsiderate to one another. Anyone with experience in left organizations can attest to witnessing, participating in, or bearing the brunt of such behaviour.

In this context it’s not surprising that friendship – meaningful personal relationships based on mutual support – has often been invoked as a way of combating these problems and overcoming the transitory character of activist projects. Activists regularly highlight the important role that friendship has played in the development of their own revolutionary capacities. For their part, social movement theorists have become increasingly interested in those emotional and non-material incentives that encourage people to engage in struggle. In our current conjuncture, and in the absence of mass-scale and effective revolutionary movements and organization, it’s easy to emphasize the integrative dimensions of existing movement culture.

But the idea of making friendship central to political struggle is motivated by more than the observation that activists within movements don’t always treat each other well. It has also arisen from our sense that spaces where we come together to oppose systemic injustice and to fight for an alternative to the hierarchical status quo ought to be where we treat each other best. Indeed, many of us perceive these relationships as the prefiguration of future forms of social solidarity and social responsibility.

However appealing these ideas might be, many activists have also come to realize that there are real dangers with making friendship the cement that holds our political movements together. One has to do with how the emphasis on friendship often steers movements in the direction of the countercultural. For many activists, radicalization involves rejecting the dominant culture and forging connections in countercultural scenes. Whether we’re talking about the rock and roll of the 60s, the punk of the 80s, or the hip hop of today, subcultures have provided a framework for forging friendships while rebelling against (aspects of) the prevailing culture, producing a milieu within which young radicals and “misfits” can come into their own and construct individual and collective oppositional identities. The line between counter-culture and left politics has always been blurry. This has been especially true in recent decades when the radical left has been small and marginalized, resembling any number of subcultures in size, influence, and habits.

One should not discount the resources that these sub- and counter-cultural forms have brought to the radical left during a period in which survival was as much a concern as going on the offensive. However, there are real limits to movements whose infrastructure becomes highly dependent on the informal linkages of friendship. For example, activist and left groupings have often – too often – become dominated by informal cliques of “in group” activists.

These groupings, more or less controlled by a handful of charismatic and well-connected individuals who set the agenda and make many of the important decisions outside of meetings – in bars or sitting around kitchen tables – are familiar enough to anyone who has devoted much time to political activism. The ties of “friendship” that bind these individuals to each other and to their organizations are prone to becoming problematic. There is, for example, a built-in possibility of exclusion of those who don’t “fit in” with the dominant in-group. Another danger that arises is the “chill factor” that results when people feel unable or unwilling to make political arguments that might alienate them from their friends. As a consequence, difficult questions may be deferred or avoided altogether, and opinions that are unpopular or contrary to prevailing in-group orthodoxies are marginalized.

It is often thought that with friends we are most at home, least alienated, and above all, most able to “just be ourselves.” In our view, while friendship is certainly a good thing, comradeship is something different, and it is the latter notion that we feel needs to be rekindled as part of the kind of political transformation that our movements require. This is, in part, due to the tendency of friends to accept each other the way they are, regardless of how distant we might be from the ideal of who we want to become.

More generally, a focus on prefigurative personal relationships and friendship as a way to build healthier and more sustainable movements is a false solution insofar as it is dependent for its success on the radical left remaining small, insular, and more or less subcultural.

We can contrast this notion of friendship with the idea of comradeship popularized by the socialist movements of the early 20th century. Comradeship was about commitment to one another in the context of broader, pressing struggles – typically class struggles but later also anti-imperialist national liberation struggles. The decline of the term “comrade,” particularly in the rich countries of the North, largely coincided with the decline of the socialist movements that popularized it. But its current lack of popularity is also a result of its association with Stalinist regimes and the dogmatic authoritarianism that characterized a variety of communist and socialist parties. Furthermore, in countries such as the US and Canada, where Cold War ideology pervaded almost every aspect of popular consciousness for a long period, the notion of comradeship has almost become devoid of meaning. Even radical activists tend to refrain from using the term, or use it with a heavy dose of irony or sarcasm.

But tides change, as we are seeing in the wake of the financial meltdown and in the midst of deepening economic and ecological crisis. As socialism makes its way (however inadequately) back into political discussion, the idea of comrades-in-struggle is likely to re-emerge as well. While remaining on guard against authoritarianism and the kind of brow-beating paternalism that sometimes characterized the old left, we should welcome this re-emergence: comrades are what radicals should be to each other.

People can be comrades, fighting in a common struggle, even sacrificing for each other, without being the best – or even the worst – of friends. Even if you don’t particularly like a comrade as a friend, you will struggle alongside her to bring into being a new kind of world. The principle of friendship, unlike the notion of ‘comradeship,’ does not really evoke the kind of discipline, militancy, and principled, vigorous debate and criticism required to bring about radical change. While these latter principles need not come at the expense of basic decency and mutual respect, they may well come into conflict with the frequently reiterated imperative to “just be nice to each other.” On this point, Bertolt Brecht seems more in tune with the wager demanded by militant rebellion:

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.
But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

This is not just a poetic version of Robespierre’s justification for the Reign of Terror: to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs. Rather, it points to the cruel nature of the world we inhabit and takes seriously the idea that truly effective revolt against it is not going to be easy or comfortable, and that hard as we try (and we should try) we cannot always be friendly or loving or kind. There are very real barriers to us truly “being the change we want to see.”

Because the change we want cannot be selected from a series of already available options, it will have to be produced. From this
perspective, we fight alongside each other as comrades with an orientation to a future “we” that cannot now be realized as a result of the fundamental limits imposed on who we can be by the prevailing social order. This is, after all, the reason that radical social transformation is necessary and desirable in the first place. Certainly, there are dangers inherent in this orientation to a future ‘we’ that should be acknowledged, but that fact does not detract from its fundamental importance.1

Needless to say, this is not the primary orientation within radical activist circles today, where revolutionary motivation has, by and large, metamorphosed into a kind of self-valorization against a dominant culture and its power structures (as a movement, as members of an oppressed class, gender, ethnic group, nation, etc.), while the imperative of abolishing “who we are” as part and parcel of social transformation has been downplayed or forgotten. If valorization has become a dominant orientation within contemporary radical circles, it has a longer pedigree in the post-war left and has been reflected in developments within radical theory.

To see the roots of this orientation in the New Left, consider Martin Duberman’s account of how it was the “lumpenproletariat – long kept outside the ‘system’ and thus uncorrupted by its values – who [were] looked to as the repository of virtue, an example of a better way.” The New Left, Duberman continues, “even while demanding that the lot of the underclass be improved, implicitly venerates that lot; the desire to cure poverty cohabits with the wish to emulate it.” 2 The perspectives of those whose oppression is inseparable from their embodied experience were seen by the New Left as particularly valuable, not least because they would be indispensable to the development of concrete knowledge of social relations and to the making of political claims. This same orientation has led many activists not rooted in oppressed communities to seek leadership from those perceived to be most directly affected, and to try to ensure that claims raised in opposition to social injustice are articulated by them.

The tendency to valorize the oppressed became codified in radical political theory, for instance in the growing popularity of “standpoint” theories of knowledge and the notion of the “epistemic privilege of the oppressed,” to use Ruth Roach Pearson’s terms. Between the early 1980s and the end of the century, radical theory turned increasingly to the elaboration of discrete forms of “situated” or “experiential” knowledge. Feminism subdivided. New fields opened up. With the popularization of the work of Molefi Kete Asante and others in the early 1990s, “Afrocentricity” became an important form of oppositional thought.

Taken together, these developments helped to produce an important recovery of hidden and suppressed voices. By the early 1990s, these forms of radical theory were being met by a mobilized right wing on North American university campuses. The “culture wars” ensued, and in the face of right wing attacks, many radicals suspended their gnawing misgivings about the overall merit of the new outlook.

It is partly on this basis that we can understand the ease with which the frames of reference of a new testimonial politics came to permeate activist circles. By the the time of the rise of the global justice movements opposing neoliberalism, this frame of reference had become commonsensical among radicals. Although its implications were not universally understood or endorsed, and conflicts around recognition and representation continued to permeate the movement, testimonial politics became semi-institutionalized through the elaboration (and enforcement) of a relatively coherent code of movement conduct.

It isn’t difficult to detect a kind of romantic mysticism emerging from valorizing the experiences of the oppressed. This was expressed simultaneously on multiple fronts, ranging from the assertion of the uniqueness of “women’s ways of knowing” to the emphasis on the “untranslatable” in some versions of post-colonial thought. Whatever we make of these particular theories, the New Left is to be credited with a healthy questioning of mainstream – including Left establishment – assumptions about the objectivity, neutrality, or universal rationality of the dominant Euro-American, technocratic, “scientific” (or, rather, scientistic) capitalist civilization. Prevailing notions of objectivity, rationality, neutrality, universality and science have indeed contributed, including in Old Left discourse, to the suppression of “subaltern” perspectives.

Of course the veneration of the experiences of the oppressed, or even the desire to emulate that experience, is not unique to the New Left or to contemporary activism. Gandhi is an obvious example. While Gandhi achieved much for the self-image of the poor and oppressed in India (at least for a time), in valorizing them as he did, he became an obstacle to a more radical restructuring of Indian society (a view widely held among socialists in India, both during the independence struggle and since), though one wouldn’t know this from the rosy view of Gandhi that is common in North American progressive circles. The poor and oppressed in India still form a vast majority of the population, and part of the reason may well be what Eqbal Ahmad referred to as the “spiritualization of politics” that Gandhi did so much to foster.3

Of course, as Ahmad acknowledges, Gandhi did not foresee how deadly a turn the “spiritualization of politics” would take, nor can he be blamed for more cynical attempts to valorize the oppressed by religious fundamentalists. But arguably, he so valorized and romanticized the downtrodden that he couldn’t bring himself to endorse a social order in which their very existence as oppressed would be abolished. It is in this vein that one of Gandhi’s harshest critics, B.R. Ambedkar, born into untouchability, rejected Gandhi’s romanticization of village life as sentimental, condescending, and misguided. Did Gandhi do the oppressed castes a service in fighting for an end to caste-discrimination (which is not the same as abolishing caste altogether)? Or did he, like a good liberal, in effect help them to gain a few crumbs as an alternative to helping to win a better world? Something may be learned from a case like this, if we are to come to terms with the current tendency among many on the radical left to valorize the oppressed and marginalized.

Veneration and emulation of the experiences of the oppressed, however, should not be dismissed. In a political context that continues to be shaped by the liberal dynamics of recognition and the extension of rights, the proliferation of situated accounts and “subjugated knowledges” has been important for advancing demands that the state live up to its professed ideals. This has been socially and psychically important for communities struggling against perpetual oppression, misrecognition, and erasure. And, whatever position one takes on “the epistemic privilege of the oppressed” (the view that the oppressed are inherently better situated to acquire ‘real’ knowledge of the social world, not available to others), this idea has a commonsensical, democratic rationale we should not lose sight of. Nevertheless, the dynamic of recognition/valorization that became such a prominent feature of New Left and contemporary activism seems to be in tension with the kind of claim-making that took place in a past era. In this, we think something important has been lost.

Providing avenues for the marginalized and oppressed to have their voices heard and their experiences and perspectives validated is, of course, a necessary part of progressive struggle. But we still need to ask about its limits: where, in the end, does valorization of ourselves and/or oppressed communities really get us? Does it not often lead to a kind of unproductive competition among activist groups bidding for the right to speak for the “truly” oppressed? Is there not a temptation to get caught up in fruitless disputes about who is the most oppressed, who should be in the forefront of progressive struggle, who has been the most silenced, and so on?

While there was no single way of making claims during the period of 1848 to 1968 – years which coincided with the rise and fall of international-industrial socialism (as well as the heyday of national liberation struggles) – there was a certain tendency: by and large, the left during this time presupposed that people did not struggle primarily on the basis of a prior sense of self-worth but rather on the basis of what they envisioned they could become. Marx, for example, did not valorize workers but claimed that under capitalism they were “most human in their animal functions,” and insisted that “the proletariat cannot liberate itself without destroying the conditions of its own life.”

Formulations such as this were not restricted to Marx or the 19th century. Frantz Fanon, for example, in Black Skins, White Masks, asserted that in the end the “black man” was a “logical impossibility.” Second wave feminist literature contains many similarly scathing self-indictments. Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, Michele Wallace, and Andrea Dworkin each portrayed women in modern patriarchal society as servile and weak. Although their projects were in no sense identical, the refusal to celebrate women as they were nevertheless remained a key theme throughout.

In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone recounts how women of the early 1960s who became politically active before the advent of radical feminism “saw politics not as a means towards a better life” for themselves but rather as a means of dealing with the lack of viable outlets for their socially repressed energies. According to Firestone, “many joined the peace movement, always an acceptable feminine pastime: harmless because politically impotent, it yet provided a vicarious outlet for female anger.”4

Judged from the standpoint of contemporary activist orthodoxies, Firestone’s comments are jarring: not only does she call into question women’s decisions concerning the most effective course for their own struggle, she actively pathologizes them. While reading Firestone today is unsettling, the refusal to valorize women as they found themselves was even more explicit in the work of Andrea Dworkin. Regularly dismissed throughout the 1980s and 1990s as an anti-sex man-hater, Dworkin’s early work makes clear that she was a woman-hater as well. Specifically, the concepts “man” and “woman” – concepts that defined and constrained the lives of those forced to live within their grasp – became the objects of a deep hatred. By directing her hatred at categories while simultaneously believing in the possibility that those who embodied them could become something more, Dworkin’s hatred took on a revolutionary dimension. At the beginning of 1974’s Woman Hating (written “in memory of Emma Goldman”), she recounts the moment of awakening, when women “began to see ourselves clearly, and what we saw was dreadful.”

We saw that we were ... slaves to the slave. We saw that we were…ass-licking, bowing, scraping, shuffling fools. We recognized all our social behaviour as learned behaviour that functioned for survival in a sexist world: we painted ourselves, smiled, exposed our legs and ass, had children, kept house, as our accommodations to the reality of power politics.5

Do comments such as these work to undermine the goal of liberating women from patriarchal domination? Can anyone be empowered by thinking of themselves as “slaves to the slave” and so on? Doesn’t this make women into hapless passive victims? Dworkin, of course, was not aiming to instil in women a debilitating self-hatred. To her, this sort of self-critical, even self-loathing attitude, was a spur to radical feminist action aimed at creating a different world. She imagined how much better we all would be in a world in which women would literally cease to be “women” as they are recognized today. The commitment to self-abolition is clear insofar as the future social order was conceived as androgynous, a society in which there would be no morally, politically, or socially significant distinctions based on gender as we currently understand it. Dworkin believed that in existing, patriarchal society, women were destined, more or less, to be caricatures of what they could become in a non-patriarchal world. In conclusion, Dworkin notes that “the object is the development of a new kind of human being and a new kind of human community. All of us who have ever tried to right a wrong recognize that truly nothing short of everything will really do.”

In these examples, the parallel to Marx’s vision of the self-abolition of the working class is clear, extended now to the forms of social oppression particular to what Firestone called the “sex-class system.” Fanon applied the very same paradigm when, in The Wretched of the Earth, he envisioned a kind of post-racial internationalist culture that would follow upon the racially-framed struggles that were made necessary by colonialism. In all these cases, the paradigm of struggle is one of self-negation or abolition for the sake of a future “we”, a future community that is thought to be better than any presently possible “we.” This paradigm has arisen from particular modes of social struggle in specific historical circumstances. We can, even today, hear it echoed in the lines of “The Internationale” that remind us “Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” (We are nothing, let us be all).

While an orientation to struggle based on self-abolition such as we have been describing needn’t be tied to any particular Enlightenment view of human nature – as it sometimes was with the old revolutionary left – it does imply a radical hope in the future. Perhaps one reason this emphasis on what we can become has taken a back seat to the emphasis on who we are is that we lack the hope, particularly the collective hope, that was so characteristic of movements in the past. Why is this? Why would there be less hope now than there was then?

We believe that there are at least three factors that have combined to erode the revolutionary hope and vision that was characteristic of the Old Left. First, there is the capitalist triumphalism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, accompanied by a growing sense that the Thatcherite mantra that “there is no alternative” had teeth. The existence of the Communist world – Stalinist and authoritarian as these regimes were – provided concrete evidence that alternatives were possible. These were not tremendously appealing alternatives, to put it mildly, but there was always the hope that the Communist societies could be transformed in a more democratic direction and that future attempts at constructing socialism outside the Communist Bloc could be more democratic and less authoritarian than “actually existing socialism” proved to be.

But the turn to valorization of the oppressed and testimonial politics began before the collapse of Communism, and its appeal was at least partly due to growing dissatisfaction with the perceived elitism and dogmatism of Old Left organizations and parties. Radical democracy, it was thought, would best be served by a different kind of politics, one that would be more thoroughly “from the bottom up,” would recognize the irreducible diversity of struggles, and would not repeat, at any price, the sins of “vanguardism” that marred the Old Left and contributed to the authoritarian character of Communist societies.

The third factor was the rise of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism was, if nothing else, an attack on the hard-won gains of labour and other social struggles. Whether neoliberalism was imposed with violent repression (as it was in much of Latin America) or sold with catchwords like flexibility and choice (as it was throughout North America and Western Europe), its net effect was to make masses of people less optimistic about the future. With some exceptions, such as the all too brief wave of global uprisings at the turn of the century, this was especially the case when it came to the question of fundamental social change. Indeed, the primary accomplishment of neoliberalism is the way it has succeeded in disempowering and demobilizing people. What else could be expected as wealth was dramatically “redistributed” upward, independent trade unions were systematically weakened, public services and welfare provision were gutted, and essential services were privatized and made more expensive? Neoliberalism disempowered vast majorities and, in combination with the lack of a perceived alternative, did much to undermine hope in the possibility of fighting for and winning a fundamentally different collective future, even among those on the committed left.

The only feasible way of finding an undistorted reflection of ourselves in the world is to produce that world in accordance with the image of our own desires. However, through this process, the producers are transformed along with the world upon which they work. By organizing our conception of what is needed on the basis of who we already imagine ourselves to be, we inadvertently narrow the field of possibility. If we rely upon that which we extract from those in power, we will eventually be forced to concede that, as Fanon reminds us, “certain concessions are the cloak for a tighter rein.”

Feminist, anti-racist, environmentalist, disability, and queer and trans movements, have fundamentally broadened our horizons and changed the world. However, so long as the structures of power and the imperatives of accumulation and competition endemic to capitalism persist and deepen their hold on our societies, all of our struggles come up against insurmountable obstacles. In response, radical movements have ended up curbing their ambitions and scaling back their hopes.

Moreover, insofar as the politics of valorization proceeds on the assumption that what we are doing is more or less adequate, that we just need to do it more and better, we believe it has become an obstacle to an effective response to the urgency of our current situation. The idea that we just have to “support each other’s struggles” with no clear conception of a common goal of social transformation, or sometimes even a common enemy we are struggling against, is a product of the political and organizational conservatism induced by an attachment to valorization. A politics of self-abolition, on the other hand, would be willing to consider and even welcome the end of our movements as they currently exist as a condition for their success. Objections to this range from counter-productive turf-guarding “narcissism of small differences” to legitimate concerns that particular interests and perspectives might be steamrolled in the production of something new. A politics of self-abolition is frightening, and there may be no easy solution to the tensions that would almost certainly accompany it, to be sure, but our current moment demands that we be this ambitious.


1 These dangers have been historically realized in ‘actually existing’ Communist regimes as well as in many of the practices and organizational structures of the Old Left. It can carry with it, for example, the potential for elitism and authoritarianism, as well as a dangerous willingness to sacrifice individuals or current generations in the name of the future.

2 Martin Duberman, “Black Power and the American Radical Tradition (1968)” in Left Out: The Politics of Exclusion: Essays 1964-2002,(Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002), 181-182.

3 Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, (Boston: South End Press, 2000), 1-18.

4 Shulamith Firestone, Dialectic of Sex (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 19070). p.27.

5 Andrea Dworkin,  Woman Hating, (New York: Dutton, 1974), 21.