Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How Do People Become Radical? (Part Two)

Student demands are selfishness in action
Continued from Part One

Becoming radical is not easy. For me, it was a quite deliberate process of smashing what William Blake called the "mind forged manacles" - the heavy, clanking, iron chains cast in church, school, and even the home. As my new knowledge grew, I found myself increasingly able to contextualise the old teachings. But this is a long, drawn-out task, which I know I am far from completing, though I have been working on it for twelve years. I doubt I will ever complete it, regardless of what happens politically during the rest of my life.

And then there's putting your thoughts into practice. Often of course, there are economic costs, not to mention the 'free time' given up to organising things, (maybe) writing subversively, and taking political action. The more you immerse yourself in this world, the higher the toll it takes. You are combating everything; swimming against the tide. There have been many moments - such as once when I was awoken at four am to face off with massive, dead-eyed riot cops - when the inevitable question 'Why?' entered my head.

But then why do people do anything? To put things as simple as possible, people act in one way because it seems better than all the other ways. Becoming a communist seemed better (and more logical) than giving up all hope for myself and humanity, and I remain one for similar reasons. And when I believe, how can I not act?

There's a more formal Marxist way of saying the same thing. Perverse though it may seem, activism is a kind of 'selfishness'. We are all shaped by the flow of history, and yet:
"History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not ‘history’ which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
When I take part in radical activism, I do so because I believe it's in my best interests. If there was some kind of situation where it seemed to be against my best interests, I wouldn't continue. There is nothing less radical than martyrdom. So in the fullest sense, to go back to my friend's questions, I see my own activism as very much 'nurture' over 'nature'. Sure, I must have been born with certain predispositions, but they have been shaped by the events of my life. No less than the investment banker or the president, I am doing what seems best for me.

I'm aware that this isn't a fully satisfactory answer, because it doesn't offer some kind of 'magic bullet'. There's no particular argument you can make that will definitely make people see things your way. Ranting at them doesn't help, because it often just alienates you from people who could be allies. On an intellectual level, all that you can do is try to put the day to day disasters into context, predict the way things will turn out if capitalism is left to continue unabated, and offer realistic ways out of this mess.

If we're talking about 'selfish activism', nothingiseverlost's comment on Part One raises more interesting questions about how "one of the big dividing lines is the point where you start basing your activity around your own needs and everyday life". Is there a division "between getting pissed off at what capitalism does to people in Iraq/Colombia/other distant location that you can't really affect, and getting pissed off at what it's doing to you personally"? With a new generation of students and workers becoming radicalised by the economic crisis of their own lives, 'the selfishness of solidarity' seems like a good idea for another article/thesis/book!

So what does separate us from "the ones who are content to fritter their lives away watching soaps and reading The Enquirer?". Ultimately I would say it is an urgent sense that the world can (and must) be a better place for us and our descendents to grow up in. In these times of heightened class struggle, the celebrity magazine reader of one week is likely to become the hardcore revolutionary of the next.
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