Liberation as transformation

A piece about humanism, reform, and a case against linear ideas of social transformation through reforms.

Some political traditions have been built around the distinction between reform and revolution. A rough and ready understanding of the difference tends to be cached out in terms of the ultimate goal of political activity. Revolutionaries want to ultimately overthrow today’s situation, whereas reformists hope to make changes that will improve the existing social organization without overturning it. The most popular position for revolutionaries is to advocate working towards reforms as a means of radicalizing people; how we fight for reforms is the relevant factor.

Within revolutionary traditions then the rejection of these ideas is seen as marginal if not crazy. Few openly identify with a rejection of revolutionary-reforms, and those that do are frowned upon. Perhaps only insurrectionists and nihilists consistently advocate a distinct political practice to approach revolutionary society.

There is in fact good reason to think this whole picture is off that can be made sense of by looking at reforms. A reform is some kind of change to the established system that is made within the existing means to do so. This is to say something wouldn’t be a reform if it fundamentally changes social relationships, structure, and power (however we want to understand ‘fundamental’ here). But reforms are just means to ends. People want a national health system because of the good things it brings: improved life expectancy, less dependency on individual jobs, more expendable income to pursue the good things in life, etc. Reforms can motivate people to make more drastic changes in their not only because the act of fighting can radicalize them, but also because of the benefits they’re chasing. When groups come together to improve the world and do so because a commitment to humanistic values those intentions and the process of fighting can open mental space to question. Fighting for reforms challenges the unreformed values, practices, and outcomes. If this is the relationship we’re after, then we do better by going deeper, engaging more people, and winning more reforms.

There’s good reason to question how well revolutionaries end up doing in general. For one thing, most large-scale leftist movements pursued revolution through struggles for reform, but only ended up creating revisions of capitalist society with remixes of its exploitation and oppression. In fact, those societies were often on par and in some cases worse than other alternatives. Though overlooked, reformist movements perhaps end up doing this work better than revolutionaries in terms of collective transformations and improvement of humanity. The majority of left revolutionary movements can be viewed not as movements engaged in systemic change, but instead reformist movements with the distant goal of transformation. Judged against run of the mill humanists working for the common good, this legacy should be ruthlessly questioned.

Liberation is, I want to suggest, something different. If we are talking about a fundamental change in the way that people relate to one and another, produce and receive the goods of society, and decide how their world is shaped, reforms will neither create such changes nor ensure commitment to them. Fights for reforms can lead some to reject the viability of getting what they want within the existing system. We forget that people are not stupid though and recognize that the best way to get what one wants is generally not to throw oneself into an all out war with everything powerful on the planet. As long as we are in the realm of means to ends, the model of reform as tool of revolution is pie in the sky. The missing element is that people need to be committed to a different kind of good; the goods that come from the radical changes promoted.

Consider the anarchosyndicalist workers movements. Workers have specific gripes. Anarchosyndicalists maintained workplace organizations in spite of very severe conditions: illegality, assassinations, mass firings, starvation, and horrendous conditions. In many, if not most, circumstances the lives of the workers would have been/be better in reformist struggles and organizations. Outside of exceptional circumstances, there are better ways to get more pay, better conditions, and benefits than potentially provoking the terrorism of the employing class and state. Yet, in spite of this millions of workers chose this path of danger, why? The anarchosyndicalist movement was not propelled by miraculous successes, though there were those as well. Workers decided to take up these projects because of a commitment to the world and vision that they helped create through these struggles. This is why you see repeated examples of the rejection of reforms by workers in these conditions: the understanding that wage increases can evaporate with economic changes, positions against contracts or strike funds, and the embrace of taxing illegal struggles for the freedom to organize and take direct action.

Revolutionary movements often act against the immediate interests and reforms of their situation guided by the conviction and ethics of concrete needs and desires of their participants. Linked to struggles for more immediate goods, the revolutionary impulse is neither contained in those battles nor derived from them. Likewise social explosions that produce revolutionary conflicts tend to produce reformist (some of which are positive for humanity) and repressive responses.

It should be liberation then that revolutionary movements should identify with not of some immediate manifestation of power but of the systemic organization of power itself. Liberation is a type of transformation, separate though influenced by reforms. The ruptures and activities that insurrectionists and nihilists ossify and turn into religion are one aspect of those types of shifts. In this sense the insurrectionary conception of reforms grab onto something correct, that liberation and reform are separate. Yet we should not lose sight of the humanity of the work that reformists do. Measured against the legacy of the left, we ought to respect and promote the humanistic achievements of reformists. When more fundamental changes cannot be had, reformist work is a better path for humanity and the participants than the leftist alternative.

Revolutionaries have a different role corresponding to their aspirations. Liberation is built through the development of experiences and cognition that break from systemic power. The events and actions that facilitate this have their own logic apart from that of our everyday experience of conflict and resolution within society. To develop an understanding of this and to build practices to facilitate it is the work of people committed to another path for life. It also takes us far afield from traditions of the left.

Posted By

s.nappalos
Feb 9 2015 18:02

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warrencurtis
Feb 12 2015 08:25

Liberation is a nice motto or drilling power for the revolution. facilitation in this area will surely produce good results.