We, especially those of us in feminist movements, seem to relive the wracking debates of our movement’s past lives, and as people of colour in particular we seem condemned at times to a Groundhog Day of vexatious, soul-wrenching debates about our role in not just activism, but life itself. Are we selling out if we [insert anything slightly fun or remunerative here]? What does it mean to be authentically [insert ethnicity/race here]? The radical wing of activism presents one with equal dilemmas about living one’s values. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and a dozen other tiresome clichés that have been reincarnated as inspirational Facebook memes. But all these swarms of corkscrewing questions pale before the biggest of them all: Do we change the system from within or burn it all down?
(Always ask this question as if you are speaking with thunder at your back.)
It’s a trick question. It always was. Each option is, itself, a vast oversimplification of an impossibility. The labyrinthine ways we must live our lives admit neither choice—and if you’re trans, a person of colour, queer, or poor, comprise is a brute necessity. But these debates, as all too many of us are coming to realize, are not new.
We’ve been down this road before.
If literature teaches us anything, it is surely that.
There is an oft hidden sub-genre of literature exploring these complicated, conflicting demands, laying bare the many issues inherent to activist perfectionism. These stories by women—cis and trans, white and of colour—as well as by some men of colour, provide stark insight into our manifold present predicaments.
The Partei’s Over
A particularly amusing example of this is Yumiko Kurahashi’s 1960 short story “Partei” which, half a century later, still acts as a stinging satire of far-left political organising, told from a woman’s perspective. The unnamed narrator spins a tale of ennui and pointless ritual-unto-death that weaves in and out of meaningless sex that feels like a joyless companion to selling the Party newspaper.
The narrator’s “life history,” an autobiographical piece she must write to secure Party membership, is a running theme of the story. Her male friend and party recruiter constantly tries to edit and recontextualise her life story, which the narrator is, in any event, loath to write in the first place. “You started to construct the story of my past,” she says, “and you argued that it was ‘inevitably’ that I should join the Party. Your persistence was remarkable, and I felt both admiration and wonder that my past could be molded in such a splendid way. But at last I interrupted you. That’s not the point, I said. No matter how much you brushed and creased my past, it did not mean that ‘therefore’ I ‘had to’ join the Party.”
Her friend sniffs and derides this as “intuitionalism,” a “dangerous ideology.” The narrator chafes at her impoverished childhood being “brushed and creased” into a neat ideological story about class consciousness. This is not a paean to individualism, but to a woman’s right to control the meaning of her own story.
The story is laden with snarky resonances for the struggles of our own time. Kurahashi’s nameless narrator sometimes feels like the everywoman of male-dominated liberation movements. When she says of one young party man “All this time he had been looking at me as if were some ‘object’…I felt uncomfortable,” she could easily be describing any one of hundreds of over-eager activist men this side of the Pacific.
The story is a brilliant reminder of the wages of purity politics in radicalism and the way it stultifies us, but also how some men use it as an excuse to engage in sexist behaviour, under the guise of policing the revolution. Needless to say, in the end the narrator becomes fed up and rushes towards a different future. Her thoughts on the titular party have an eerie correspondence with one too many collectives in our own time:
“The Party no doubt existed somewhere, functioning with its strange, complex mechanism, expanding and shrinking, swallowing individuals like me and then spitting them out. This existence, however, was extremely abstract. To me it seemed like a kind of religious organisation, developing as it did from a body of commandments and secret rituals. Its purpose was salvation, and to be saved was to believe.”
There’s humour to be found in the story, but the narrator’s valedictory musings here constitute a kind of activist candour that Western leftists might do well to learn something from. Women’s angle of vision on leftist politics was always that of an outsider, no matter how involved we were or how much work we did, and its heaving mechanisms have often been made plainest and starkest in the poetry, prose, or scholarship of the women who lived through it.
Disillusionment is a bountifully wise teacher.
Literature reminds us that history is shaped like a corkscrew as well: we revisit many old, drearily familiar places, eerily uncanny debates, before we make real progress. The oft forgotten works of people of colour and trans folk are a testament to that lengthy history.
The literary revelation that my personal struggles with activism have been shared by my ancestors is actually a palliative. I am not alone. Wondering about the limits of radical activism, the dangers of single-issue politics, the way privilege makes an insidious marionette of radical purity, questions of racial identity amid white supremacism, there are a number of musings out there to satisfy one’s doubts.
Those doubts won’t go away—nor should they, skepticism is one of life’s greatest spices—but they became more focused for me, more strategic, helping me become a better and more thoughtful activist.
I plan to make a series of this. There are a lot of stories like this that I want to share, and I can’t do justice to all of them in one article, so this will be the first of many pieces where I look at literature on activism that is at once critical and affirming. We are so mired in bad-faith arguments about social justice activism—witness any amount of hand-wringing concern trolling about activist tactics. But the real sin is not “tone policing,” (itself a concept often used in bad faith), it’s that its privileged clamour silences the discussions we need to have about the little violences of activism in our own communities.
Just because a writer in a major publication whinges with predictable hyperbole that we need to stop being so ideologically pure, with the usual apologia for prejudice it entails, does not mean that there are no legitimate questions to be asked about that much-talked-about but little-understood notion of praxis. There are other angles of vision that one can take to criticise activism– both from within and from without.
But clearly, the path to exploring these issues honestly, in a way that is neither silencing nor invalidating, is a fraught one. How does activism hurt us, even as it promises liberation? How can we reconcile this contradiction? How can we remake its emancipatory ethics into something more than a bumper sticker slogan tossed around social media? If ideological purity is dangerous (and let’s be real, it is deadly), then how do we deal with it? I think that a forgotten canon of literature holds some answers, and I look forward to sharing some more with you.
(Oh, and, got some stories to share with me? Let me know in the comments!)