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The Politics of Self-Emancipation


Introduction

Anarchists and Marxists have not always agreed on very much. Indeed, Karl Marx and his anarchist contemporary and rival, Mikhail Bakunin, were especially prone to disagree with one another. But there was one key political judgment of which they both became convinced: that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of workers themselves." This principle of self-emancipation was enshrined in the Rules of the organization to which they both belonged in the late 19th century, the "International," as it was then called, or the "First International," as it came to be known. Today, it is perhaps best known through the song dedicated to it, The Internationale.

The principle of self-emancipation, which the International placed at the very centre of its politics, first emerged in the mid-19th century as part of a backlash among radicals of that time against certain earlier forms of socialism that they had come to view as paternalistic and elitist.

According to these earlier forms of radicalism, the masses were too ignorant, or too passive and apathetic, to ever liberate themselves, so what was needed was a special elite of selfless revolutionaries (or utopian social engineers) who would achieve social transformation on behalf of working people. Emancipation would be given to the working class as a sort of gift, bestowed on workers from above by an elite of intellectuals and activists.

The most forward-looking activists of the time, including Bakunin and Marx, insisted on self-emancipation as a point of principle. But what did they mean by "self-emancipation"? And what relevance, if any, does this old, 19th century term have for today’s struggles for social and environmental justice, and for political and economic democracy?

Elitist Radicalism Today

It may not seem obvious, but the tradition of elitist radicalism to which Marx and Bakunin (and many others) were objecting in the late 1800s is still alive and well, on the Left today.

True, radical activists will seldom say – openly – that the masses are too ignorant and apathetic to liberate themselves, and that they need an elite group of intellectuals and activists to liberate them from above. But this very idea is actually highly influential among many North American radicals today. They use a slightly different language, but the content of their politics is strikingly similar to the elitist radicalism of the 19th century. Most people are just "too apathetic," these activists say, to engage in the struggle for social justice. Most people are "sheep," the argument goes, who are wilfully ignorant because of their attachment to consumerism and a self-indulgent lifestyle of hedonism and escapism. The average person is, therefore, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

From these analytical starting-points, the elitist radicals of today draw the very same practical conclusion drawn by their 19th century forerunners: there is no point in trying to mobilize most people, and only people who are "true radicals," who reject consumerism and who "see through the lies" of capitalism and its mass media, can be won over to a strategy of militant struggle, which is what is needed to "take on the system" and transform society.

The bottom line, for elitist radicalism, is that the masses are not to be seen as a potential force for radical change, to be organized by a painstaking process of movement-building in which they are won over to a transformative, "anti-systemic" political project. Instead, the masses are best understood as a tool of reactionary politics, "bought off" by the system, and now so thoroughly incorporated into it (by means of a combination of affluence, consumerism and mass deception by the media), that they are actually part and parcel of the system to be opposed.

Self-Emancipation and Social Change

When radicals like Marx and Bakunin rejected the politics of elitist radicalism, in favour of the politics of self-emancipation, they were developing a whole new way of thinking about the dynamics of social change. According to the view they gradually converged toward, changing society is bound up with changing oneself, and people are liberated from oppression or exploitation by mobilizing themselves to struggle on their own behalf. At first, this self-organization, or "self-activity" as Marx called it, might not seem "truly radical" to other activists, who may think that they know better what the real problems are and what kinds of change are needed. But, in the course of such self-activity, exploited and oppressed people not only begin to change the world; they also begin to change themselves: they begin to see the potential power of collective action, to see connections between capitalism and racism or sexism or imperialism that they may not previously have grasped, and they begin to contemplate more and more far-reaching social transformations as they gain deeper insight into the systemic roots of the social problems they hope to remedy through social action. This process of politicization, sometimes leading to radicalization, may take some time, and different people will draw different political conclusions from their experiences in struggle, arriving sometimes at radical positions, and sometimes at more reformist positions. But, according to advocates of self-emancipation politics, there is no viable alternative to the difficult learning process in which social movements, based on self-organization of exploited and oppressed people, serve as spaces of mediation (bridge-building) between masses of people and the transformative agenda of radical politics. Grassroots social movements for self-emancipation are the mediating bridges that make it possible for the ambitious aims for social change embraced by otherwise-isolated radicals to connect to the grievances and aspirations of masses of people with the potential collective power to transform society from below.

So, the politics of self-emancipation is not just a way of thinking about the relation between isolated groups of radicals and the mass of working-class people. It is more generally a way of thinking about how the world changes, and about the relation between a radical agenda and the mass constituency or social base for the realization of that agenda. According to self-emancipation politics, in order to realize a radical agenda (whether it relates to class or to gender or race or whatever), activists have to rely on the emergence of a movement for self-emancipation, in which an exploited and/or oppressed group transforms itself into the collective agent of its own liberation, and thereby becomes a force for radical social change. Radicals cannot liberate others, but can only foster the emergence and strengthening of movements in which exploited and oppressed people work toward liberating themselves.

Self-Emancipation and Practical Politics

What are the implications of the principle of self-emancipation, in today’s struggles for social and environmental justice, and for political and economic democracy?

The key point is that self-emancipation means that people have to be the agents of their own liberation, and there is no one else who can substitute themselves for the people whose emancipation from oppression and exploitation Leftists want to support.

Consider an example. Women’s liberation is something that all radicals ought to support, actively. But what does it mean to actively support the liberation of women, if one accepts the principle of self-emancipation? Put simply, it means that the emancipation of women must be the act of women themselves. Women and men have a very different relationship to feminism, if one understands feminism as a vehicle for the self-emancipation of women.

But does that mean that men should do nothing to support the struggle against sexism? Of course not. Marx and Bakunin were not workers but semi-employed writers, who relied on financial support from other activists and from working-class organizations. But they devoted themselves to the liberation of workers, and quite rightly saw this as consistent with their commitment to the self-emancipation of working class. What, then, does self-emancipation mean, here?

The point is not that men should not be involved in any way. The point is that men should not lead, and should specifically step back from rushing to the front of the movement. Instead, men should practice a systematic, disciplined form of deference. That means, first, not making the mistake of thinking that they are members of the feminist movement just like anyone else (i.e., just like women), or that they have as much right to participate in decision-making or organizing actions as any woman does. That would be like Marx or Bakunin demanding the right to vote in a trade union meeting. Deference also means, secondly, allowing women to decide on their own what role men should play in the movement, if any.

One form which a self-emancipation approach to feminism can take is women-only organizing. Men who accept the principle of self-emancipation should be fully supportive of any decision by women to exclude men from organizing, because this is often an effective way for women to institutionalize deference by men (who otherwise often take up undue space in organizing meetings, and who may put women activists in the position of having to do "remedial" anti-sexism training for male activists, when their time would be better spent on organizing for self-liberation).

But self-emancipation does not require "separatism." In principle, there is no reason why the self-emancipation of women must always mean women-only organizing. The point about self-emancipation is that men have no particular right to be included in any way, and that the only reason for women to include men is that the women involved in organizing the movement (or particular actions or organizations within the movement) have decided that involving men in certain ways is helpful for the self-emancipation of women. To adopt a formula used by early advocates of self-emancipation: it is fine for men to join the women’s movement, as long as it is really them joining the women’s movement, and not the women’s movement joining them. In other words, there must be no doubt whose movement it is, and whose role it is to lead and shape the movement.

Some men, partly because they are socialized to have a sense of entitlement, and partly because they are failing to think through the politics of self-emancipation, may be offended, emotionally, by being excluded. But this is like an employer feeling offended by the fact that his or her employees want to allow only workers to attend union meetings. It is nothing personal, but the mandate of the union, and the political rationale for organizing a labour movement in the first place, necessitate that the union be worker-led and that it be organized solely on behalf of the workers, to advance their aims and interests, and this often (and quite properly) requires excluding employers from union-organized events. If the employer takes offense, this must be due to a combination of political confusion and emotional immaturity. The workers involved should pay no particular attention to it. Perhaps the employer needs counselling, but there should be no thought of accommodating his or her demand to be admitted into union meetings and other union-organized events.

I have used the example of feminism, as the movement for the self-emancipation of women, to illustrate the implications of self-emancipation politics for activism today. But it should be easy to see how the same points can be generalized to other kinds of self-emancipation organizing: anti-racist organizing, anti-poverty organizing, and First Nations political organizing, for instance. Other social movements, such as struggles to democratize state institutions or to impose accountability on the police or to restrict urban sprawl, etc., may not raise all the same issues, but the idea at the heart of the principle of self-emancipation still applies: that the grassroots self-activity of masses of people is the key to changing the world, rather than relying on either an "elite" of dedicated activists or a different kind of "elite" of professional politicians.

Conclusion

Adopting the politics of self-emancipation implies a rejection, not just of the elitist radicalism that would substitute a self-proclaimed elite of "true radicals" for the self-activity of the masses. It also implies a rejection of any attempt by members of one group of people – regardless of how well-meaning they may be – to try to claim for themselves the right to lead a struggle for the emancipation of any other exploited and oppressed group of people. It implies, therefore, a certain sort of deference: a willingness to acknowledge the right of oppressed and exploited people to take the lead in the process of their own self-liberation.

(The author, Steve D’Arcy, is a member of the London Project for a Participatory Society, in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at "radicalism{at}gmail.com")

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