August 18, 2008

Revolution, Nostalgia, and Heroism

Today, the phrase African socialism seems to espouse the view that the traditional African society was a classless society. imbued with the spirit of humanism and to express a nostalgia for that spirit. such a conception of socialism makes a fetish of the communal African society.
-Kwame Nkrumah

I like this quote for many reasons. First, because it shuns that unfortunate tendency of some writers to make pre-colonial Africa a place of perfect equality, a virtual paradise before the injection of evil which inevitably came from outside the unspoiled African envirornment.
The truth is this: Africa is the place of humankind's most ancient habitation, and as such we expect to find and do, the remains of the earliest civilizations as well as evidence of their decline and fall. This is the natural cycle of all human accomplishment throughout recorded history, and we place Africa outside history if we look to its past as if all Africans were kings and queens.
This also relates to a tendency I've noticed to deify revolutionary leaders, as if they possessed the truth for all times and places. Yet to make them heroes is to rob them of their relevance; they and thousands of others rose to prominence by making the powerful uneasy, by offering the stark unvarnished truth forged by their experience. They offered no claims to universalism and for the most part no ideologically ‘correct’ analysis applicable across time and space. They spoke from the specificity of their historical community and experience. They were usually hated by liberals. And yet, in each of them, one finds a current of humanism (and I mean that term in the best sense of faith in human capacity) and a generosity of spirit appropriate to the true revolutionary. One is reminded that Che once famously said, “a true revolutionary is inspired by feelings of love.” Unfortunately, in their haste to recycle the various arguments of these legends, some of their admirers have forgotten this basis.
For radicals, especially in America, there is a crucial gap between ideology and practice. While the great writings of Fanon, Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, and Steve Biko (to name a few) emerge from the crucible of the struggle, the radicalism of our generation is often simply recycled analysis, offered by pseudo-academics who have spent their whole life in school up till now, and who possess virtually no experience in the kind of political organizing or guerilla warfare of the previously mentioned writers. They are all theory, no practice.
My point is that borrowed ideologies, even from such luminaries as Malcolm X, rarely can respond flexibly to the challenges of actual lived experience. This will help prevent rhetorical hypocricy. For example, not long ago, I listened to a local DC filmmaker stir a crowd up by emphasizing how whites were trying to prevent his films being made, and how blacks needed to support each other. He went on to sharply criticize those Africans living in America who did nothing for Africa. Later, a friend related to me how this same filmmaker uses mostly white production companies! He brought to mind Fanon’s observation that there are many (mostly among the so-called ‘conscious’ crowd) who are “violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes.” Me, I am unabashedly a reformist. Reform should not be understood as a theoretical ideal rooted in a particular ideology (i.e. Western liberalism) but as the will to change certain aspects of society without destroying the whole society itself. Just because you favor reform doesn't mean you share the intellectual foundations of everyone else who wants reform. To be a revolutionary requires immense courage, indeed, I think it requires one to possess an incredible intensity bordering on the fanatical. This is not to discount revolutionaries, but to underscore Sekou Sundiata's words: "Revolution. You wouldn't use that word if you knew what it means/its dirty, its bloody, it overturns things."
Sadly, those who claim to be revolutionaries often use this ideology as the barest cover for their own personal ambitions. I've been utterly amazed at the childish posturing and exaggeration that passes for historical analysis at some of the 'revolutionary' meetings and gatherings I've attended; I'm even more incredulous that those who go around pumping up 'revolution' are actually arrogant about it. Sorry, this is unrelated to travel, but I had to rant for a second.


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