social movements without romance

People who study movements often identity with them. Many of our most eminent Civil Rights scholars were themselves in the Civil Rights movement and many scholars of LGBT politics are themselves queer. Furthermore, many study movements they sympathize with.

This has many strengths. If you are part of a movement, or if you know about its issues from personal experience, or you sympathize with it, you may have access that other scholars don’t. But there are weaknesses as well. You might romanticize the movement. The movement looks like a band of heroes who battle great villains and overcome great obstacles. Flaws and drawbacks are minimized and under-studied.

In my field of research, the study of Black power and nationalism, we often see that. I think that many Black power groups, like the Panthers, did genuinely great things. Pride in Black culture is important. Many groups ran important social programs, like the Panther’s health care program. At the same time, the scholarship overlooks the less than stellar aspects of a movement. For example, many of the leaders of the Panthers were extremely violent people. Also, the Panthers advocated a form of revolutionary socialism. Unless you want to convert the US’ economy into Cuba’s, that’s a huge drawback.

When people ask me, “What do you think about the Panthers?” – I always say, “it’s complicated.” That is a genuine response. The move to radicalism was understandable in the late 1960s. I also strongly sympathize with the Panther’s response to their immediate problems – rampant poverty and police brutality. And it is not hard to point to concrete activities that Panthers did, like the health programs, that were clearly positive.

But it had a cost – radicalization drew Civil Rights away from a broad coalition to a much narrower one. It also undermined the main point of Civil Rights, which was to reform American society, not a plan to radicalize it along Marxist or Maoist lines. Also, radicalization and the rejection of non-violence allowed people with violent tendencies to emerge as leaders and undermined the unusually successful politics of respectability that the Civil Rights movement had cultivated.

The broader lesson for me is that we need “movements without romance.” Of course, a lot of research is rather a-political. We have tons of research on, say, whether social ties enable recruitment, but we also have a bit of research that implicitly, or explicitly, casts movements as the hero of a story, rather than an actor to be interrogated.



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Written by fabiorojas

March 9, 2020 at 12:03 am

Posted in uncategorized

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