Revolutionary fables

I came across this fable by Luís Henrique on the internetz recently:

Once upon a time, people came to the home of The Revolutionary, shouting: Revolutionary! Revolutionary! O Revolutionary! Come with us! There is a revolution going on!

The Revolutionary came to his window, and asked: But will there be hippies there?

– Oh yes, there are hippies there. And all the other people, too.

– And are there religious people there?

– Oh yes, there are religious people there, Quackers and Mormons and Catholics, and even a few Buddhists and Hare Krishnas. And all the other people, too.

– And there are soldiers in there?

– Oh yes, there are soldiers in the revolution, marines and sailors and firemen. And all the other people, too.

– And are there prostitutes in the revolution?

– Oh yes, there are prostitutes, and johns, and even a few pimps in there. And all the other people, too.

– And are there people in ties?

– Oh yes, there are people in ties in the revolution, and in blue jeans, and in rags, and in McDonalds uniforms. And all the other people, too.

– Oh so I am sorry, but that isn’t an actual revolution, because if there are enemies of the people, like pimps and soldiers and Mormons and nuns and hippies and yuppies and whatnot, it can’t be a Pure, Pristine, Perfect Revolution as I dream of.

And so the people went away to their revolution, and The Revolutionary stayed home, explaining from his computer to the internet why the revolution was not a true revolution. And so the people had to do their revolution without The Revolutionary. But the good thing is, people didn’t actually need The Revolutionary, because a revolution is to be done by hippies and Quackers and soldiers and whores and people in ties and people in rags, and all the other people too.

I appreciate the sentiment, and there is something to the critique that Henrique is making. We don’t get very far if we wait for social movements to have perfect analysis and tactics before we join them.

But I can’t help thinking that probably the conversation went more like this:

– Are there women in the revolution?

– No, the women all left because a man in the revolution had raped some of them. But the revolution needs him. He knows how to use photoshop and how to shout slogans into a megaphone.

– Are there indigenous people in the revolution?

– We’d like to get some. But they just want to talk about how their land was colonised. It’s sectarian and divisive.

– Are there people who are disabled in the revolution?

– No. We can’t be bothered making our revolutionary spaces accessible.

– Are there trangender people in the revolution?

– No. We don’t want to alienate transphobic cis-people by having transpeople in the revolution.

– Are there migrants in the revolution?

– Not yet. You know, it’s not really part of their culture to join a revolution. It will take some time for us to raise their consciousness.

– Are there gay people in the revolution?

– We had some but they left after someone made a homophobic joke. They are too sensitive and their priorities are wrong.

– Are there parents in the revolution?

– Only the ones who can afford a babysitter. We’re not going to provide childcare. If people choose to have a baby that’s their own responsibility.

Well, you get where I’m going with this… in the end the revolutionary probably decided to go join the revolution anyway to avoid being sectarian. Or maybe she just stayed home and wrote a grumpy blog post instead. I don’t know.

My point is that the reason I critique movements like Occupy Wherever (or the July 14 movement in Israel) isn’t because they’re too inclusive, it’s because they aren’t inclusive enough. Being inclusive of some people, say West Bank settlers, or men who have commited sexual abuse towards women, or cops, means excluding others, like Palestinians, or women who have been sexually abused, or people who’ve been terrorised by cops their whole lives.

It’s not sectarian or divisive to refuse to organise a revolution with people who’ve oppressed you, or to demand that the revolution you’re part of addresses your oppression even if it doesn’t affect everyone else in the revolution.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Revolutionary fables

  1. In the unlikely event that the people bother to stop at the window of a revolutionary to ask their advice, the correct answer should be “I’m on my way down now”. Any debates and questions should be done in the street, not from the window. Your first thought was right, ‘We don’t get very far if we wait for social movements to have perfect analysis and tactics before we join them’. So, it is certain that all those problems you mention will be found in any mass movement. Our job is to oppose those ideas and show people that they are wrong. this will be difficult, that’s why its called struggle. most of the time I’m pretty confident that most people taking part in a mass movement and working alongside others from all different backgrounds, will see that their irrational prejudices are wrong. Of course some problems are harder than others (eg your cops, settlers and rapists) but most of the time, most people do get it by doing stuff, and working with people. your average mildly racist old aunty from small town NZ has no knowledge of Maori culture apart from seeing Hone Harawira on TV and doesn’t know any openly gay people, but their prejudice is based on ignorance and fear, and this stuff fades away through getting to know people, especially if they are in the middle of a radical life changing period like a mass political movement, and they are challenged on stuff by people they respect and trust. Most people recognise injustice when they see it.

    A big stereotype that has been drummed into peoples heads for the last 25 years in NZ by the media and the rightwing, is that the left are a bunch of shrill moralistic hypocrites who like to tell other people how to think. Most of the time that is not true, but that IS what your funny old aunt from Levin thinks about “lefty activists”. Often shouting criticism from the window feeds right into this stereotype. I’ve got plenty of friends and relatives who foam at the mouth whenever they see a “radical” on TV, but those same people recognise that yes, some terrible things happened to maori when the british invaded (and they are quite happy with the word invasion), and that their bosses are totally corrupt greedy bastards, and that both labour and national are committed to selling off everything with no regard to democracy or living standards/child poverty etc. we have a lot in common and if we start there, its much easier to talk about our differences. For me the most important thing a revolutionary can do is learn to listen, trust people, and then and learn to challenge people on their bullshit without sounding like the stereotype moralistic leftist. In other words, we shouldn’t be having any sort of conversation from the window, because making demands or challenging people will always be misinterpreted up there. we need to get down on the street, where we are going to get dirty and we are going to have to work with people who have grown up with bullshit and ignorance, and learn to trust each other, so that we can challenge them in a way that they will be convinced. Its hard and its frustrating, but in the long run its less frustrating than a lifetime of shouting at people as they march past below our windows.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I think if the revolutionary went to avoid being sectarian chances are she and I could hang out and bitch about it. And if she stayed in and wrote a grumpy blog, I’d read it and offer to come around with cookies.

    I think we need to be better at being inclusive. And we need to learn that structural injustice doesn’t vanish because we have good intentions.

  3. I think there’s a difference between not participating in a revolution because you think you’re smarter than everyone else and you’re mad they won’t let you lead the revolution, and not participating because you face discrimination within the movement and it makes you scared and unwelcome (or not participating because you’re being excluded, because of lack of childcare or physical accessiblity).

    Antisemitism (and people who fail to challenge it) makes me feel unwelcome and scared. It might be more productive for me to go talk to antisemites so they can see what a nice person who doesn’t control the world’s money I am, but it’s also draining and often pointless and I’d rather save my energy for other struggles. And antisemitism is way less common in NZ than racism against Māori, Pacific Islanders, Asians and other people of colour.

  4. Kim

    Awesome, awesome post. Thanks.

    And thanks Nausea for your comment–it is exhausting enough for people who are the targets of hostility and prejudice to overlook it and stick around (get involved! change the culture!), but to be expected to sweetly encourage them to overcome their hostility (we can’t change unless you tell us how!)? That’s a huge ask, that many activists nevertheless take on, and get attacked for, often by long time activists.

    It would be a huge relief if more activists would educate themselves about oppressions they don’t face, and support people who are fighting those oppressions. If they can’t bring themselves to support someone who says “we need to do things differently or I have to leave”, then at the very least they could shut the fuck up and not get in that person’s way.

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