Frustrations turned inward

November 12, 2013

REVOLUTIONARIES ARE an impatient breed. We all want to be on the barricades, and yesterday.

As we organize, questions arise about methods, strategies, tactics and generating perspectives on the world around us: How do you voice your concerns, disagreements or frustrations? How do you make your voice heard within a collective project like an organization? How do you seek to make an impact as an individual? And how do you pose these questions in a way that move your work forward?

Some activists perceive developments in the world with too much emphasis on their personal expectations and politics. When they don't see their expectations realized, they tend toward demoralization and begin to look for fault. The conclusion becomes that an organization built up these expectations based on its propositions about the political moment. But because these perspectives don't play out precisely as expected, the organization is now to blame.

This phenomenon is illustrated well in the one existing post at the new blog Socialist Oupost called "A Letter to Comrades in the ISO." It is worth pointing out that the analysis of the International Socialist Organization and its "next turns" put forward by the authors of the Socialist Outpost letter is strikingly similar to post-mortems of the Occupy movement by authors at Truth-Out and the Huffington Post in their respective essays, "The Failure of Occupy Wall Street" and "Occupy and Failure." The reason for this is simply that the demoralization of the post-Occupy left runs deep, as activists of all stripes try to grapple with the fact that everything appears to be much as it was before.

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THE FIRST thing to say about this is that the world is always changing, whether one perceives the changes or not. Secondly, these changes, having occurred, may not live up to our expectations--and, let us say, they may never live up to our expectations as revolutionaries. Thirdly, it is our responsibility, as an organized force on the left, to anticipate and evaluate these developments in order to understand our changing world and to identify any openings for our politics.

To give a concrete example, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin signaled a shift in racial politics in the U.S. More than a handful of frustrated activists are trying to figure out "what went wrong," and scratching their heads about the failure of a new civil rights movement to emerge.

This question is missing the point. The way that people understand racism has most certainly changed. To be sure, we on the left had hoped that the Zimmerman verdict would mark the beginning of a large and sustained "new civil rights movement" to be seen on the streets of every major city, but this development has not come to fruition.

Trayvon Martin, however, is a household name. This is indicative of major changes that are unlikely to have already run their course. Obama's election--coupled with a national discussion on race that, like a slap in the face, reminded us that so much we expected to change hadn't--and the fight for the life of Troy Anthony Davis have changed the way this country and its activists organized.

With this in mind, activists today need to be sure they are asking the right questions. Trayvon Martin's murderer walks free in Obama's America. Rather than demand to know where on earth the movement is, the appropriate question is: "How is the movement going to be built?" Consider, too, that this is not so much a question for "the left" in some vague and ethereal sense, but a question for ourselves as part of the existing left.

One major problem with the existing left today is the sheer number of people who behave as though they aren't responsible for the health of their own movement. The Internet abounds with individuals who feel completely comfortable prescribing solutions for the problems of organizations with which they are not involved.

This is not to say that a well-researched and well-reasoned critique from the outside cannot exist. The point is that there is a preponderance of individuals, often in isolation, acting as spectators to the collective projects of others. A social movement isn't something to consume and observe; it's something to engage and grow with.

Rather than waiting for an organization that is mostly correct to develop a program that smacks of one's exact thinking, it is far more useful to collaborate with, if not actually join up with a group you mostly agree with, and try to convince the others of what is still lacking. Perhaps it's time to reassess why you broke with a group you had qualms with? Is it actually the case that sticking it out and fighting for changes within the framework of something larger can benefit you and the collective as a whole. Could a reassessment even lead to points of compromise, where a mutual project could be decided on and a new direction found?

Sometimes there are primary and secondary disagreements, and it's incumbent on us to not unnecessarily elevate the secondary to the level of primary. To pose things more sharply, it should be said that when it comes to building a movement, individuals really only matter to the extent that they can collaborate with others.

NO ORGANIZATION is perfect. In fact, under the present conditions we should say that no organization is even worth being wholly content with. The constantly shifting nature of the arena in the fight against capitalism means that what worked today may well not work tomorrow and who leads well in one situation may not in another. Someone who stands outside of this process risks irrelevance and, if they really do have something to offer, risks depriving others of their talents and insights. On the other hand, someone who stands outside and waits never has to deal with the possibility of being wrong or, worse, being correct but unable to convince anyone.

Organized revolutionaries have to constantly assess both their immediate work and the political perspectives that inform it. Understandably, we are often tempted to tailor our perspectives to our desires. It is imperative, then, to maintain a rigorous balance between practice and theory, action and assessment.

If you find yourself frustrated by unrealized hopes and expectations, it may be the predictable result of a rudimentary outlook on the world and crude perspective on social change. Furthermore, it can be the expression of a methodological individualism that fails to grasp the totality of developments.

So what are we saying? The world entered into a period within the last few years that is distinctly different from the period that preceded it. In the wake of the financial crisis, with the myth of a post-racial America exposed, and with the rapid development and subsequent unraveling of the first wave of organized mass discontent, we are left wondering what to do and where to go next.

Things may not have happened, or be happening, the way we had all thought they would, but we nevertheless operate on an altered terrain because of the experience of all the "failed" movements of the last few years. Rather than lower our expectations about what to expect in the near future, we should raise our level of politics and find more creative ways to collaborate in preparation for what lies ahead.
Brit Schulte and Jason Netek, Chicago

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