Accidental activists and the left

March 10, 2010

New movements aren't made by progressive standing on the sidelines waiting for the "correct politics" before they get involved in organizing.

THERE IS a caricature in some radicals' heads about the forces that will come together to build a new left in the U.S. According to this notion, an uncompromising radical bloc of self-identified militants will rise up, brush off their passivity, and unite in opposition to an equally undaunted and unyielding right wing.

Karl Marx challenged this fantasy more than a century and a half ago. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he explained:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

We see Marx's prediction unfolding in today's LGBT movement, where most people are continually being thrust into activism out of dire, pressing circumstances, not any consistent ideology. Out of that involvement, though, conceptual links are revealed, and structural analysis becomes possible.

Bess Watts, president of the Rochester chapter of Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO's LGBT caucus, described her political orientation this way: "I'm an accidental activist."

Watts got involved in political organizing as a result of being denied domestic partnership benefits at work. Today, she mobilizes around a host of left-wing causes and reads progressive literature and Web sites.

The passage of California's anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in 2008 propelled hundreds of thousands of people like Bess into the streets, most for the first time. Many thousands continue to agitate around a broader set of demands, including full federal equality.

However, a section of the left pooh-poohs this movement and its demands for civil rights, especially repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. These radicals contend that such demands amount to calling for reforms of bourgeois institutions that must, in their thinking, catapult activists into the arms of the state.

Demonstrating for marriage rights and full equality at the National Equality March
Demonstrating for marriage rights and full equality at the National Equality March (M.V. Jantzen)

First of all, virtually all protest demands under capitalism, from "Tax the rich!" and "End the war!" are appeals for the state to take action. (Is there anything more bourgeois than the tax code?)

But more centrally, the argument is that demands for reforms will draw LGBT people into institutions like marriage, with all its bourgeois trappings.

For example, on the Web site Gays Against Gay Marriage, one finds: "I do not need the state to recognize my love...Now stop trying to force your oppressive, frilly and boring traditional institutions meant to ensure monogamy on my hot, promiscuous, anonymous gay sex."

Elsewhere, Yasmin Nair, a blogger and Gender Just activist, writes, "The fight for gay marriage is swaddled in a lot of self-righteous bunk about gay people being better at relationships, and more loving and more caring. Somewhere along the way, someone at GMM (Gay Marriage Movement) headquarters decided that that meant denying the existence of gay sex."

While I'm sympathetic to Nair's attacks on the corporate-dominated LGBT spin-meisters, it seems to me that her critique--and those like it--are even more reason for the left not to abandon the movement to more conservative forces. If "accidental activists" are to transform into conscious radicals--as many are--the involvement of leftists is paramount.

What's more, leftists must fight for the right to marry while at the same time arguing that it should not be posed as the social gold standard and the means through which benefits like health care should be distributed. But that doesn't mean falling into moralistic rants against straight people, and positing a sexuality hierarchy, as if LGBT sex and gender variances are elevated forms of being. We are, alas, one human race--flawed, fabulous and dull at turns.

IN A society where the left is only starting to be rebuilt after decades of low levels of struggle and an eviscerated labor movement, a motley set of ideas dominates in all movement circles. We see some activists vacillate between lobbying and sit-ins. Others want to incorporate sections of the right that express sympathy for a reform such as same-sex marriage, seeking legitimacy in the eyes of decision-makers. Many are discussing the role of the Democratic Party and questioning its history of betrayals.

Leftists must roll up our sleeves and get involved in these struggles and debates in order to win people over to liberatory principles of class solidarity and opposition to all oppression--not assume them as the initial instincts of a newly developing movement.

Radicals such as Cleve Jones, who helped mobilize the LGBT National Equality March last fall, argue for getting back to our roots by protesting alongside labor and immigrants. Thousands have heeded this call, and there is greater integration of class and racial politics in LGBT activism today--and the involvement of a layer of multiracial working-class LGBT people--than at any point in more than 20 years.

There's a danger in assuming that activists emerge out of the primordial political ooze with a full-blown leftist worldview. It can lead well-meaning radicals to write off new activists and their demands that mobilize people around reforms within the system.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin argued against crude notions of how rebellions would take off. In his writing about the struggle for self-determination of oppressed countries, he castigated those who dismissed radicalizing elements that at times expressed conservative or contradictory ideas:

So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism," and another somewhere else, and says, "We are for imperialism," and that will be a social revolution!...Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

As for those who disparage the fight for LGBT civil rights in total, the left must stand firm. Not only does gaining the benefits themselves warrant a battle, but the struggle itself forges a new consciousness and opens new vistas. Rosa Luxemburg was definitive on this question:

Can we oppose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, its final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not...For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.

After years of organizing in isolation from broader forces, leftists must recognize the early shoots of radicalism. Lessons from revolutionaries--from Marx to Luxemburg--can help guide leftists to see these shoots for what they are: buds of hope.

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