Revolutionary Love Part 2: Politics between Fidelity and Treason

What binds a person to a cause? What acts as a motive, spurring someone on to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of some value, some transcendent ideal which mightn’t be brought into being but through struggle, but through death and tears. While we were off debating what makes a cause just, what makes an ideal worthwhile, this more fundamental problem was ignored. For what is the use of a principle if it does not motivate, if it does not from itself encourage the many to meet in secret and carry out acts which compromise or at very least delay their own projects, for its sake – not theirs? 

The answer is not, at least I don’t think, situated only in the ideal itself. There are many ideals which on their own look worthwhile, look like much improved ways for people to live together, ways that would much better permit the actualization of freedom. If anything, the problem is not the lack of wonderful ideals, but an over-proliferation of them; everyone has their own theory of how the future should look, of what arrangements would best meet the needs of humans living together. But most of these ideals do not motivate, most would-be revolutionaries are slacktivists at best.

And what of the real revolutionaries, how do we evaluate them? Usually by putting up their ideas next to ours, we evaluate whether they are sufficiently anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, etc… We set them over against our own ideals – and more often than not, they come out looking worse, looking “problematic”. We can say from our computer high-chairs that their revolution will surely go for naught because they haven’t adequately theorized the problem of the bourgeoisie, or the patriarchy, or white-privledge, etc…

But this is a mistake. Because unlike our ideas, the ideas of real revolutionaries are out there motivating revolutionary action. Their values may not be up to our standards, but at least they have standards, in the sense that they do not merely theorize the difference between what is and what can be, but act on it, in an attempt to force the world to fit their prescriptions.

So what is it about the ideas in really existent revolutionary struggles that causes them to be motivating? I suggest that they motivate for reasons which are strange, and in a sense, opposite to the rubric under which we evaluate them. We evaluate revolutionary ideologies on universal grounds – as ideas which could be held by anyone, which could form the basis of social life anywhere. We look for generic prescriptions, and we ask are they adequate and appropriate to the persons who we actually are. But universalist reasons are poor motivators, motivation is much more likely to be grounded in narrative, in history and tradition, and in familial and community kinship. The commitment to your brother, to your neighbour, these are more powerful motivators than commitment to an ideal.

However, if motivation comes out of history and narrative, if it is driven primarily by devotion to fellow humans, especially those who are close in some social way, then is revolutionary political motivation completely out of sync with what is revolutionary about political ideas? There is, after all, nothing revolutionary about my family being in charge rather than your family, nothing revolutionary about my people dominating your people rather than vice versa.

The tension in this conflict is never resolved entirely, but it is subject to a side-step, and perhaps it is this which is the core of every truly revolutionary movement: under oppression one finds oneself in a situation which has a universalizing aspect to it. While you may want to reign down the same oppression against your oppressor, you don’t wish it on them as human beings, but as oppressors. There is in the violence of the oppressed the possibility for redemption on the part of the oppressor. A possibility for apology, for recognition, for a restitution not taken by force but freely given – and accepted.

On the side of the oppressor, a false version of the same possibility exists. “Stop fighting, and we will live peacefully” says the oppressor while land is stolen and houses demolished. The trick often works, and civilians on the side of the oppressor are often led with success to believe that they are the oppressed. They are told stories which paint the violent, even genocidal actions of their ancestors as virtuous, while retaliation against them is presented as pure thirst for blood. I say this is a “false version” of an opening for possible recognition and reconciliation because it demands that the oppressed recognize the oppressor as “the oppressed”, and this isn’t a matter of interpretation but a fact about the situation – a fact born out by everyday violence, by instituted supremacy and dispossession. To speak more precisely, it is false because it doesn’t reach out to the other side in its humanity, because it is with its humanity that the oppressed responds with violence. Violence on the part of the oppressed is redemptive, whereas violence to maintain the status quo is only the everydayness of brutality.

But if the violence of the oppressed is redemptive, it in normal times has this character only as a possibility, only retroactively does this character appear as concrete. Only retroactively can violence be comprehended as necessary for the advance of freedom. Only if the violence led to a transformative event, the transformative event of recognition by the oppressor. Only if the violence leads the oppressor to comprehend itself as oppressor, and on the basis of this knowledge transform, can violence be comprehended as concretely redemptive and necessary. We need therefore a hermeneutics of violence, a study of the interpretation of violence as it bears on conflicts, and as it transforms the consciousness of the different actors – especially the oppressor.

On this point Fanon faltered. While much analysis was devoted to the impact of anti-colonial violence on the native, much less asked how the oppressor would understand such violence. Fanon argued that because the legitimacy of the colonial regime was based purely on violence, violence was the only way to respond to and challenge it – violence, Fanon thought, was the only language the colonizer understands.

And he was not wrong. From all the relevant examples, we can see that the colonizer surely understands the language of violence. In Ireland we know now that the IRA’s sustained campaign motivated many in the high levels of British government to push for withdrawal – even while Thatcher was appearing to take a hard line against the hunger strikers. And in Palestine we know that Israel is only willing to make concessions when the alternative is more dangerous  – only the threat of violence and unrest ever motivates the zionists even to compromise.

But what Fanon’s analysis ignores is the transformative event of violence – he assumes that the colonizer will remain colonizer until they pick up and go home. He doesn’t allow for the possibility that the colonizer can, under military pressure, give up its privilege and even recognize the injustice and denial of humanity involved in maintaining a regime in which colonizers rule over natives as humans over non-humans.



  1. “What binds a person to a cause? What acts as a motive, spurring someone on to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of some value”

    In most cases, this may be a faulty formulation. People who join causes arguably do so mostly for their own gain, or at least not to their detriment. Among other things, taking a leading role in addressing an issue which is perceived to be important can confer social status.


    1. There are certainly people who join movements for their own personal gain. I don’t interest myself with these people, they are not revolutionaries, their motives are no more special than the motives of a manager, king or slave-driver. They are important insofar as they represent themselves as something they are not, as virtuous, while living always for their own vice.


      1. I think the overwhelming majority of people associated with all causes are primarily involved because of what it does for them, and that they would not be willing to make substantial personal sacrifices in order to advance the cause.

        Indeed, in cases where people do make what appear to be sacrifices, it might be because those are more than compensated for by improvements in status within their activist community.

      2. Perhaps the overwhelming majority among privileged Canadian 20-something “activists” do fit exactly the description you are giving here. I don’t have a problem that such forms of commitment exist, they are simply not what I’m concerned about in this post. I’m not sure if what you describe is properly a form of “commitment” at all, because “to commit” to something suggests that you are binding yourself to something outside yourself. What you are describing is simply selfishness, which is certainly a dominant motivation in many societies.

        The form of revolutionary commitment I am trying to describe is perhaps very rare outside actual revolutions, and by no means omni present within revolutions either. It is, however, I think an attempt to describe the kind of commitment that can exist within revolutionary moments which is neither liberal compromise nor terror for terror’s sake, neither a weak fear of violence nor a fetishizing of violence which misplaces massacres for social change.

  2. Just as pure altruism is hard to find, pure selfishness is arguably rare. Most human behaviour involves a little of both mixed together – activism included. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss selfishly-motivated activism as morally inferior. After all, most people who fight for something are people who have a stake in it.


    1. I think we’re just talking about different things. If you don’t think these motives are in tension, maybe you should express your view in some kind of short essay easily found online. Now only if a format for such writing existed…


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