Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Against “Rigid Radicalism”

By Gabriel Kuhn

A review of Nick Montgomery and carla bergman’s Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. Originally published on AAP.

This book, no. 7 in the Institute of Anarchist Studies/AK Press “Anarchist Interventions” series, turns against “rigid radicalism,” which the authors define thus: “There is something that circulates in many radical movements and spaces, draining away their transformative potential. Anyone who has frequented these spaces has felt it. Many (including us) have actively participated in it, spread it, and been hurt by it. It nurtures rigidity, mistrust, and anxiety precisely where we are supposed to feel most alive. It compels us to search ourselves and others ruthlessly for flaws and inconsistencies. It crushes experimentation and curiosity. It is hostile to difference, complexity, and nuance. Or it is the most complex, the most nuanced, and everyone else is simplistic and stupid. Radicalism becomes an ideal and everyone becomes deficient in comparison.”

To counteract these tendencies, the authors embrace the concept of “joyful militancy,” outlined as follows: “Joyful militancy, then, is a fierce commitment to emergent forms of life in the cracks of Empire, and the values, responsibilities, and questions that sustain them. … Joyful militancy is a dangerous, transformative, and experimental process, generated collectively and held gently.”

The authors investigate rigid radicalism and explore joyful militancy in five chapters with telling titles, so here we go: “Empire, Militancy, and Joy”; “Friendship, Freedom, Ethics, Affinity”; “Trust and Responsibility as Common Notions”; “Stifling Air, Burnout, Political Performance”; “Undoing Rigid Radicalism, Activating Joy.” The book includes many quotes from interviews that Montgomery and bergman have conducted with over a dozen writers, activists, and organizers, the likes of adrienne maree brown, Walidah Imarisha, and Margaret Killjoy. An appendix includes two full-length interviews with Silvia Federici and Kelsey Cham C.

Joyful Militancy raises important issues and is written by two dedicated organizers eager to see less self-righteous and more caring movements. This can only be appreciated.

I have the perhaps annoying belief that the most productive way to join the debate is to ask questions where I think more clarity or further reflection is needed. In this case, I’m a tad hesitant because the authors set fairly high standards for what they expect from critical interventions: “Critiques,” they write, “are no use unless they create openings for joy and experimentation and for feeling and acting differently.” I’m afraid I won’t be able to deliver that, but I will stick to what I’m used to because we are all creatures of habit. This is what I have to offer:

1. I agree with the general thrust of the book. Rigid radicalism is widespread and unhealthy. But the notion remains rather vague, because the authors subsume phenomena under it that are all problematic in themselves but often rather different. Call-out culture is not vanguardism is not competitiveness. A lighthearted approach to throwing things of different quality into the same mix is also revealed in statements like the following: “Increasingly, we suggest, having good politics means taking the right positions, saying the right things, circulating the most radical things on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, calling out the right people for being wrong, and having well-formed opinions.” I would not make someone’s good politics dependent on what they circulate on social media, and certainly not on who they call out. Saying the right things comes easily, so it’s not much of a criterion. But I don’t really see what’s wrong with taking the right positions and having well-formed opinions if that’s indeed what they are.

2. In my opinion, the text is too long. I believe the message would come across stronger and reach more people had the authors confined themselves to a feisty essay.

3. It is fair enough for an anarchist text to take jabs at Marxism, but it doesn’t do anarchists any favor if they are directed at caricatures. Take, for example, the following contention: “It was thought that revolution required a unified consciousness among proletarians: they needed to be taught that it was in their interests to overthrow capitalism.” This is simply not true, regardless of how things might have played out under real socialism. The “General Rules” of the First International opened with the statement that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” We need to direct our jabs right.

4. Admittedly, it puzzles me that, at this critical moment in time, anarchists can still take pride in not having any answers. Montgomery and bergman write: “It would be disappointing if the notion of joyful militancy ever became a handbook for transformation because it lives in questions, experiments, and openings – not answers, blueprints, or necessities.” Frankly, how is this going to help us?

5. “At its most vibrant, anarchism is not an ideology, but a creative rejection of the ideologies of the state, capitalism, and the Left.” To be brief: I think if we as anarchists continue to disassociate ourselves from the left, rather than trying to build strong, broad, and radical alliances with (other) leftist currents, we are lost. Celebrating our supposedly superior anarchist culture may flatter ourselves but is politically limited (to say the least). It also entails a problem that the authors themselves are aware of: “The critique of rigid radicalism can manifest as a new way of finding mistakes or as a contempt for places and people (including ourselves) where rigid radicalism takes hold.”

Joyful Militancy demands us to look at problematic movement dynamics, challenges us to be better comrades, and confirms that Baruch de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century lens grinder and philosopher who propagated an early version of the modern liberal state, has become a new anarchist hero. The world is full of surprises and – who knows? – might still take turns in the right direction.

(February 2018)

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