Earl McCabe

“I call myself a revolutionary when I feel ...”


ISSUE 18 | NO GODS NO MASTERS | JUL 2012

Introduction

I call myself a revolutionary. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. Every time I do it I think in the back of my head, “Did I just do that?” I do it sometimes to scare liberals and sometimes to impress someone at a party. Usually, though, I do it to give myself a kick in the ass and get myself to do something hard. I don’t do it around my parents.

Most of my activist friends don’t. We joke about “The Revolution” but leave “revolutionary” to describe inspiring folks from other countries or the glorious past. But I want to be a revolutionary. I want to do revolutionary work. As the US movement has heated up and the solid foundations of neoliberal capitalism have melted into air, the word revolution is being used more, radical change seems more possible, and folks are becoming more committed to doing the work they feel will make it happen. I think it’s time more of us start calling ourselves revolutionaries.

I call myself a revolutionary not because I feel I fill some definition of being a revolutionary, or because I think I’m just like Blanqui, Lenin, Luxembourg, or Subcomandante Marcos. I do it polemically and aspirationally. Being a revolutionary to me means doing better work, doing better at struggling for human emancipation. I call myself a revolutionary as a way to gather attitudes and comportments that I’m excited about because I think they foster better work. At this moment in history it’s not clear what that work is in the United States and I think we need to start getting somewhere on that problem. We need to start meaning something when we say Revolution.

Calling myself a revolutionary is also about attachment. The work of transforming society is hard and unpleasant. As such it’s imperative that we each find a way to become attached to the struggle. Our comrades have to know that we won’t drop out when things get hard or scary, and we have to have a place in ourselves that can get us going and push us past fear, laziness, anxiety, and every other derailing mechanism. Fleshing out this attachment, getting deep about why we do this work, is as much a part of giving body to the notion of “being a revolutionary” as clarifying what work is good. Sometimes that’s material self-interest: a worker strikes for better pay, a neighborhood develops a community defense program to protect themselves from the police, or women connect women to doctors that provide under-the-table abortions where abortions are hard or impossible to access legitimately—but that only goes so far. We need to understand the ways we can be reliably attached to this work through less rational means. That means subjective, affective and personal registers. We have to explore the ways we become attached to struggle not merely because we want to struggle, or think we should struggle, but because revolutionary struggle is part of the structure of our life. We have to think about the ways we’re attached to revolutionary work in the same way we’re attached to our community, our hobbies, and even the hegemonic order.

Both the drive to do better work and the need to clarify our attachment to struggle mean coming to the appellation “revolutionary” from the everyday. I’ve realized that there are specific affective moments in my quotidian rhythms that I feel direct me toward good revolutionary work, or make up the psychic web of attachment to revolutionary struggle. They come when I’m standing at a crosswalk, when I’m intensely focusing in a meeting, when I’m behind a banner in the streets, or when I scan the stacks of books in my room. I want to gather and hold on to these feelings under the canopy of being a revolutionary in order both to make the image of a revolutionary more robust and accessible, but also to hone and clarify these feelings that I find to be useful in my work. The title of this piece is my mechanism for exploring this personal realm. I will elaborate feelings that complete the sentence “I call myself a revolutionary when I feel ...” The list is endless,1 and I want to take it to be an ongoing project of fleshing each one out and discovering new ones. It’s a project that I don’t feel is uniquely mine, one that can be pursued by other revolutionaries. Below I'll only get to two such feelings, “serious” and “scared”; I plan to explore “tired” and “important” next month.

The difference between calling myself a revolutionary and being involved in other ways in the movement is not one of degree but of kind. I’m not suggesting that folks doing political work need to simply turn up the dial. Being attentive to historical change as a revolutionary doesn’t mean doing it more intensely but having a fundamentally different understanding of that attention. Working as a revolutionary entails, among other things, a grappling with transcendental categories like History and a radical confrontation with one’s privilege and attachment to the hegemonic order. At this moment in American history there are no specific determinations of what makes up the species “revolutionary.” Those must come from material struggle, historical events, and careful reflection.

Scared

The first time I identified as a revolutionary was the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I encountered a radical friend of mine outside of the afterparty for the 2009 Revolutionary Work in Our Time (RWIOT) Strategic Dialog, a conference of sorts that was part of an attempt at left unity-building among several revolutionary left organizations. When I described the conference and the party my friend asked me a simple question: do I identify as a revolutionary? No one had ever asked me. I’d never been hailed as a revolutionary. I stopped and surprised myself with my hesitation. I abruptly said “yes,” in an act of will that felt like waving your hands in a smoky room to clear some space of clear air to breathe, an act that does little to ameliorate the choking feeling, but gives you the confidence to take a breath anyway.

At the time I was confused: I was a committed anti-capitalist, enthusiastically attending a conference on “revolutionary work,” of course I was a revolutionary. What was this haze that gave me the panic of drowning? Looking back now from the perspective of myself today, of not using the word revolution around my parents, of keeping my Facebook “Political Views” identification as “radical,” or of the glee of attempting to scare liberals in a bar by drunkenly yelling “I’m a revolutionary Marxist!”, I realize what was choking me in 2009, and chokes me today: fear. Calling myself a revolutionary terrifies me.

In many discourses of organizing, fear is a fundamental concept. Fear keeps workers from standing up to their boss, or dumping the boss off their back all together. Creating fear is the reason riot cops have riot suits. Fear is one of the many emotions that keep people in abusive relationships. And so it’s not surprising that fear is an inevitable part of challenging these power relations and taking the kinds of risks implied by the word revolution. On the barricades, facing the better-armed police or the military, where your friends and comrades have already died, is a scary place to be.2 Many organizers see their task as helping people overcome fear, in order to actualize some social potential or act as if there was no coercion and find meaning and strength in struggle: giving folks the guts to “go over the top.” But I think too often organizers think fear is best dealt with by a slogan. The fear most organizers see in people is thin, and will be washed away with the supportive capital letters of The Revolution. This kind of fear merely clouds my will, it is merely the manifestation of the coercion from my boss and the state. All I need to get over my fear is a battle cry, a reminder that I have “nothing to lose but my chains.”

But that’s so wrong, and it feels so wrong, and it’s so unhelpful. A rallying cry can get me to do something hard, but it can never remove my fear. The fear that I carry is not an externally imposed false consciousness. I’m afraid precisely because I do have things to lose but my chains. I have my life, the life I know, the life I’m attached to. I have all the things I count on to ground myself and feel enough stability to think anything might be worth caring about. I have all the things I’m attached to and in love with that might get in the way of The Revolution. Some of my closest friends are worried about me, and for good reason. I say things that sound outlandish to most folks, like how cool Castro is, or I drunkenly fantasize out loud about burning cop cars. Or I write that I want revolutionary struggle to be part of the structure of my life (see above). Revolution brings to mind notions of sacrifice and asceticism. A comrade told me a story from the Algerian War of Independence where revolutionaries in training were fed only roaches and hummus to harden them. I don’t want to do that, but when I call myself a revolutionary part of me does. It feels like the slippery edge of a terrifying abyss.

I am a straight white male, raised in a cosmopolitan-minded middle class family. This means that I have a lot to lose, most notably a very graspable fantasy of the good life that can be mine so long as I play my cards right. Of course it’s hard for me to give up on all this and join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation. But what terrifies me most isn’t losing the material conditions I was handed. The floor falls out from under me when I realize that I might not be a “big deal.” Fundamental to the theory of the good life built within dominant subjectivities is that someday you might be important. I was taught a History that was the story of white men doing things. As a straight person I was raised with myself as the protagonist of every love story. Every love story is about my love, every battle was won by me, and every great idea came from my head. At the elite private university I call my alma mater I was continually encouraged to fantasize that my ideas were worthy of being read alongside the great canon of Plato, Fanon, Foucault, or Kristeva. It’s not necessarily that I have a special right to being a “big deal,” but that it’s within my grasp, that I’m on the path to greatness.3

I feel like a revolutionary when I principledly deprive myself of this feeling. I’m currently working at a college cafeteria, a college very similar to my alma mater in its class composition and phantasmatic affinity with greatness. My first day of work was disorienting and disturbing. I was serving people who I felt should be my peers, but I was on the other side of the glass, in an ill-fitting chef coat, covered in food waste. And there’s such an easy out for this anxiety: I can say, “I’m a revolutionary, dammit,” and that means I’m better than these privileged fucks. I’m proletarianizing myself while they read Marx in a classroom and throw around capital letters just for fun. Someday they'll be reading my writing, and studying my acts. But I can’t let myself fall so easily into wanting to be a big deal. I feel like a revolutionary when I don’t give myself that easy out. I let myself be awkward, uncomfortable and afraid around the students.

At this point, after several months, I feel more affinity with my co-workers than with the students.4 That’s even more scary, because it means to some extent I actually have given up on the world of academia and the fun of being cool in school. This fear brings to mind the stakes of my profession as a revolutionary. It reminds me that I actually have to give up my attachment to being a big deal. The concept of proletarianization has kept coming back into my head in part because I’m afraid of it. Proletarianization doesn’t just mean being able to talk to workers and make friends with them. It means getting off the path to greatness.5 Depriving myself of this attachment means one less attachment to hegemony and capitalist domination. I want to be more ready to take on revolutionary work at my own expense, but I also want to get more honest about exigencies of the revolution that are distinct from my own fulfillment. A friend of mine recently told me that she feels like organizing and revolutionary work do not feed her soul, and when she realized this she finally felt ready to do it more seriously. Pulling myself off my path to greatness is this same process; it means pulling myself away from feeding my soul.

This all is starting to sound like fear of The Revolution is a proxy for the fear of God, that this fear is a moral force keeping me on the honest path toward ultimate redemption after Judgment. I don’t want it to be that, and it doesn’t feel like that when I’m careful about what I’m feeling. Ultimately the fear of God is driven by the belief in an ultimate personal satisfaction, of your own soul, in heaven. In this sense calling myself on my own privilege is merely an act of derailing. It’s the same as me, a man, hearing my girlfriend’s feminist anger and giving an “I’m a piece of shit” speech so that she pities me and I’ve shown myself to be a good person at heart. Really, knowing and professing that I’m a piece of shit does nothing, and making such a big deal out of it merely cleanses my conscience. The fear I’m talking about reminds me to accept anger at my privilege (be it feminist, queer, anti-racist, or any other form of resistance to oppression) and accept that I’m actually on the wrong side of this line of struggle. The fear reminds me that, in many ways, I’m a piece of shit, end of story.

Welcoming that fear doesn’t help me act as an ally; there’s other things I need to complete that. But welcoming that fear helps me steer clear of easy outs that aren’t being a good ally and ultimately serve to re-inscribe my attachment to my privilege and the hegemonic order. If I constantly try to overcome that fear then I'll follow these easier roads at every turn rather than accepting that the harder or not yet accessible roads are the ones that lead toward ultimate emancipation. I call myself a revolutionary when I’m afraid because it helps me stay committed to this search.

While in this way fear leads us deeper toward solidarity we cannot deny that fear is fundamentally individuating. This too is part of why I associate it with being a revolutionary. The anticipation immanent to fear turns me inward; my fear is about the loss of my own being. This is what makes it such a powerful tool of the bosses. I don’t want to talk about what I’m afraid of, and I don’t want someone to stand up with me to overcome that fear. I just want it to go away, or forget about whatever is haunting me. A scared worker will never walk over to another worker’s station and bring them off the line into the boss’s office to demand a raise. But scared revolutionaries will also never create a cult of personality around themselves. It indexes the anxiety, the confrontation with The Nothing,6 implicit in the very notion of solidarity. To be in solidarity means to give up the fantasy of individual autonomy. It means accepting that your agency is in service of a larger process rather than freely your own. It means admitting that I am not what’s important. The response of fear, recoiling me back into myself, is natural in the face of what appears to be absolute annihilation.

That’s why fear is so important to the revolutionary. Because it pulls me apart from The Revolution. Fear reminds me what’s at stake, it reminds me that The Revolution isn’t about me being happy or comfortable or feeling fulfilled, and requires that I feel awkward and risk (which sometimes means lose) the things I care about. I must be willing to do whatever is needed to move forward the angel of history. But fear also reminds me that The Revolution will go on without me, even if I’m happy or fulfilled. It’s not bad for me to indulge my appetites that aren’t revolutionary. I am merely a revolutionary, doing whatever I can at the moment to further the project of human emancipation. I am not the angel of history. Fear reminds me how serious it is to call myself a revolutionary. When I feel comfortable as a revolutionary, I know I’m doing something wrong.

Serious

One night a few months ago I was hanging out with a new friend. All night I talked shit. I said things for my own or others’ amusement and didn’t care much about truth or honesty. I am a known liar at parties. On the bike ride home we began talking about her job and I switched my tune. I started agitating. I asked after gripes and gave her space to feel them when they came out. We talked about serious things like working without bathroom breaks and sexual harassment. My goal was simple: to see if she would want to be organized about her struggle with her boss, and if any of the organizations I am connected to might be a powerful ally. The conversation was not confrontational and I’ve learned (and been trained) to listen more than speak when hearing a story of struggle. The whirling of my mind switched from glee to a flurry of careful calculations. What was the right question to ask? Is there something I’m scared to say or ask? Should I say or ask it? How can I help her embody her anger in an empowering way? Is she ready to talk about the union and hear other stories of struggle? Which stories of mine would help her feel inspired? A.E.I.O.U., a chorus in my head: “Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, Union.”

I took pride in my shift in mood. It felt good to be so dexterous with my comportment; I could cast off my smile and give off a sense of earnestness and care. I felt serious when I was in organizing mode, and I felt like a serious revolutionary when that mode was so ready at hand. More and more I feel serious in my work, and that feels powerful. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been around for a while (a whole six years!) and seen how things tend to go. I can tell what will probably work, and what probably won’t. I can tell what things probably matter and what probably don’t. And most importantly I’m not interested in showing off. I know by now that this work is not about myself and that the mistake of ego is one of the great pitfalls of History. If I want to feel good I will be a clown, I'll get drunk, I'll say or do dumb shit. But I will not be a clown in my politics. I don’t do this work to feel good; I do this work because I know the stakes, because it’s the work that needs to get done if we have any hope in the revolution.

Seriousness is a powerful notion when it has the ring of “getting shit done.” But it’s also a deeply challenging notion. Being serious entails commitment, maturity, honesty, and a certain level of ability. This was the first feeling I had that I strongly associated with being a revolutionary. I did so because it indexed a personal process that meant facing the things I’m scared of. I’m still fully within that process but perhaps that’s what’s most essential to feeling serious, feeling that where we are now is not the end state but a moment on the way where so much work needs to get done.

For Lenin the great clowns of the revolution were the “Left Communists” whose refusal to compromise and desire for immediate revolution typified an “infantile disorder.” The revolutionary clown I’m haunted by isn’t the ultra-leftist, it’s the liberal. Liberalism is anathema to the seriousness I feel not because it shows some weakness of will or commitment to the revolutionary struggle (roughly the position of Mao), but because liberals are not genuine in their commitments and will. Liberals say they want to change the world, but they don’t mean it. In this sense of the term Phil Ochs is a better expositor of the types of liberalism than Mao. Phil Ochs’ liberal cries when Medgar Evers or JFK is killed, but thinks Malcom X got what was coming. The liberal loves Puerto Ricans and Negros, as long as they don’t move in next door. The liberal feels mature (but in a different way than Lenin’s critique of infantility); they were once young and impulsive, even going to the socialist meetings, but they’re now older and wiser and that’s why they turn the revolutionary in.

The liberal doesn’t really want a revolution. Some of them want to get rid of the shame or guilt that goes along with being an oppressive subjectivity. Some of them want to feel like a big deal by making a difference or getting their names in the history books. But all of them are terrified of rocking the boat, of taking any significant risks, of pissing people off, and of fundamentally changing anything. The liberal is dishonest because when the stakes get high they’re not willing to give up their privilege for the sake of others’ liberation.

I was a liberal for a long time. I’m probably still a liberal. In high school I was pro-military intervention so long as the UN approved it. In college I was skeptical of the Black Panthers because the idea of black power was divisive. In Madison I cheered the “Cops for Labor” because they were workers too. I disagree with each of these positions now and feel embarrassed that I ever held them. Each shift in political position I feel cleanses myself of some previous liberalism, and I feel more serious. Each time it means I’ve become more at home with the fact that “the revolution” will take risks, that I won’t see the all fruits of my labor, and that the world I know is the world I want to destroy.

Liberalism is essentially a form of selfishness; you’re not a genuine revolutionary if your politics are fundamentally about yourself. It feels serious to not do this work for myself. Calling myself a revolutionary makes me radically challenge what role I play, if any, in the processes I claim to be participating in. It’s a challenge composed of a double and divergent movement.

Facing that fear is part of what makes it feel serious; being brave feels serious. The scary thing I’m brave about is submitting to something that has nothing to do with me. Liberalism is essentially a form of selfishness; you’re not a genuine revolutionary if your politics are fundamentally about yourself. Getting over this is not a simple thing, and its structure is essentially double.

The Revolution transcends me. As I feel more and more serious I work harder and harder to keep my individuality at arm’s length. History is a process beyond the individual. Taking revolution seriously means having a teleology and an eschatology in which I will never see the promised land. It means believing in capital letters like History, Capitalism, and Man, and spelling my name lowercase. My goal is the flourishing of Man, which is orthogonal to my own flourishing. The project of my own comfort and pleasure is still important to me, but it’s not the project of revolution. If I’m going to make revolution I must submit my will to the necessities of that process, which is to say the necessities of the Logic of History. As such, insofar as I am committed to advancing History my will is not my own. This means having absolute discipline to The Program that leads over the horizon, no matter how unpleasant. This means moving to Las Vegas when the union I’m working with needs a researcher there. This means sleeping in a tent during Occupy even when it’s unbearably windy and most other protestors are astonishingly frustrating. It means purging the words crazy, insane, and nuts from my vernacular because they have such violent and traumatic resonances in our society. It means rushing from work to an all-afternoon meeting then rushing home to get some sleep before my 7 AM shift the next morning. But this isn’t about sacrificing yourself for the revolution, this is about knowing what it will take and being willing to do it. This has nothing to do with personal importance or even happiness. The capital-letter categories so radically transcend my life that if I were to drop out of the movement, the Revolution wouldn’t notice. Someday I might retire, but until then I am completely committed.7

But the revolution is not about theory. Revolutionary work based on what ought to be there, whether that’s a subjectively unified industrial proletariat or secret cabals of capitalists, rather than what is there, a fragmented and multivalent working class or intentional but not subjective power relations,8 is another great pitfall of History. On a personal level this theoretical attitude manifests itself in the revolutionaries who play the part to the hilt. They are hardcore, uncompromising, deny themselves pleasures, and attempt to embody most fully the perfect image of their politics. To be a revolutionary as if one were an actor playing a part in a movie is to be a clown, miming for the sake of one’s own or others’ amusement. I feel serious when I pay careful attention to what is instead of what I think ought to be. I feel serious when I don’t wear political buttons in public in case I run into a manager from work. I feel serious when I write with a pseudonym to protect my Google search but also to prevent myself from writing for name recognition. I feel serious when I shut up in a meeting to make sure more minor voices can be heard. It feels serious to eschew melodrama, and to be grounded in the realities and struggles of the communities and shops we organize in. The revolution is only feasible when it is grounded completely in the real material conditions of the world.

Seriousness, then, pulls me in two. I am pulled to submit to the logics that transcend me and my experience, and at the same time pulled to be grounded in the concrete reality of domination. Both of these entail a radical critique and deconstruction of my relationship to myself. In the first I don’t matter, and nothing I can see directly matters. In the second I must take infinitely more care about the everyday than I do naturally, and my attempts at world-building through gossip and fantasy have no place. In the face of this apparent contradiction I don’t hold out hope in some dialectical synthesis, or primordial thinking of its ontological ground. Rather I want to be able to hold onto the tension in all its discomfort.

That tension keeps me on my toes. At each turn I can’t fall into a vulgar version of either the blind devotee of the Idea or the hopeless activist who can only see concrete struggles before them without seeing a longer road. Either of these pitfalls feel like laziness; the former lets me off the hook for bringing my interpretation in relation to the world, and the latter protects me from having to reconsider what I’m doing in the face of a larger project. Both also feel like ego. The former cultivates a sense of personal satisfaction and greatness, and the latter shirks from the work that might fundamentally undermine my current world. By pulling me in two, seriousness pulls me out of myself and back into the work. I call myself a revolutionary when I feel serious because seriousness is a guidepost for the road over the horizon and toward the realm of freedom. 9

Postscript

I am a straight, white cis-man. As such it is deeply problematic to associate my personal affective landscape with the overcoming of oppression. Proclamations and peculiarities of straight-white-cis-men inherently have the ring of the Absolute and consistently crowd out the voices and experiences of the oppressed. My project in this essay therefore is extremely dangerous. To be clear, I want to render my voice minor rather than speak for the whole. I believe some of the feelings I have might be useful to revolutionaries across many positions in the systems of oppression that structure modern life, and those that aren’t may at least be thought-provoking. But feminism and anti-racism are not disclaimers, and it is not enough to apologize for being a straight-white-cis-man and then proceed to do the same work I would do without the apology. Feminism and anti-racism must fundamentally alter the work done, and I want to make every effort to accomplish this. But I will fail, I will legitimate and enable patriarchy and white supremacy. Feminism and anti-racism are also lines of struggle. When I fail I want to be called out and given the shit I deserve. This piece is by no means a manifesto, it is a small contribution to what I feel is an important process, and I humbly submit to the multi-directional and dynamic struggle that is the revolution.

1 To name a few: my heart racing, out on a limb, ambiguous, important, convicted, confused, historical, patient, impatient, awkward, humble, arrogant, tired, bored, anxious, ashamed, committed, engaged, swept up, grounded, conflicted, empowered.

2 Or for a more current example, the side streets around Tahrir Square in Cairo.

3 This for me is about getting more radical than the material privilege theory that’s dominant in activist communities. It’s taught early on to activists that we each have unique material privileges (carried around in an invisible knapsack, for instance) that allow us an ease and comfort of life that makes us more attached to and complicit with oppression. I think this is a powerful and important realization, but it’s not the whole story. Yes, I am prone to reactionary and oppressive habits because the state is not my enemy day-to-day, but attachment isn’t rational, and it isn’t learned through pattern recognition. My attachment to hegemony is not merely objective, it’s also subjective. I want to get deeper about why I can’t give up being straight, white, and male. There are thick and complex systems that keep me enacting oppressive behavior. It’s as thick and complex as love. It’s not all that wrong to say that I’m in love with hegemony.

4 Though I still walk home through campus in the hopes some student will see me out of my uniform, wearing my hipster uniform of skinny jeans and a jean jacket, and realize I’m really one of them.

5 When middle-class liberals interact with working-class folks, they’re often most disoriented by what they call a lack of ambition. A 25-year-old grill cook either has no hope or hopes to become a floor manager. To many of my friends this is unbelievably sad.

6 See Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics?”

7 In Steinbeck’s book In Dubious Battle there’s an incredible passage where the protagonist, James Nolan, talks to his comrade about retiring from the revolution. He doesn't see it as impossible or immoral, but thinks they probably can’t keep themselves away from the struggle long enough to actually retire.

8 Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley, page 94.

9 Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingston, page 312.