Collective Struggle and Social Change: A Revolution of my Own

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A witness from the North West Mediterranean shore.

When I was younger, I firmly wanted to bring about a revolution in my society. I expected my revolution to improve the living conditions of all the deprived people in the world. But I was not aware of the huge differences distinguishing the revolutions occurred along history. I also did not have any idea of how different societies had evolved in different ways throughout these revolutions.

I just wanted to be a revolutionary. I simply had this image of revolutionaries from all over the world as beautiful and proud people, and I wanted to become as beautiful and proud as them. At the same time I did not know exactly what it took to become a revolutionary. But I did know that pride and beauty are very important references in self-determination.

In my early teenage years, I was simply convinced to be very ugly. I was mostly hiding myself in my fantasies and dreams. I felt I had not much in my social life to be proud of. When I was first confronted by a group of activists in my high school, I was helplessly astonished by their provocative attitudes. I compared it to my shy behavior, and simply felt they would never accept me in their group, as if I was not cool enough to join them. I just wanted to become part of their group really badly. Finally, I had found something that could make me proud of myself.

Revolution became a mythical word in my vocabulary. We were aware of the difference in scale between our smallactions and the far larger revolts we used to take as models in our daily activities. Still we glorified ourselves believing that we were acting in the interest of the silent majority. At that time, I would draw my political commitment as a linear path running from a narrow access all along an ever-enlarging corridor. It seemed to be all about leading the others, the silent majority, to share our beliefs and speak out loud with us. As if revolution was destiny, as if history was an arrow guided by Hegelian determinism, as if the dictatorship of proletariat could have actually brought up the end of history itself.

Luckily critical Marxism supported us not be doped by this kind of propaganda. Still, in our deepest unconscious, we were all affected by a sort of expectation that our actions would bring the majority of people, one by one, to share our political aims. Revolution was then understood as the final goal, and being a revolutionary meant to contribute to the start-up of a new historical phase. Little by little, we accepted that our principles where not going to pull the silent majority into any mobilization. Instead of planning how to lead a revolution, we were in fact just making sure that, whenever the tide and the wind snapped a wave for us, we would be fully equipped to surf on it.

This kind of motivation led me to undergo intensive efforts: sleepless nights writing and printing flyers issuing our collective statements; extensive walks sticking and spreading our posters and leaflets; endless meetings discussing each and every event requiring our attention. From the privatization of the public education system, to the laws jeopardizing the legal status of migrants to have them exploited in the black market, to the misleading propaganda against Palestinian Intifada. From the reduction of public funds for the women’s shelter in our town, to the suffering of women and lesbians from the Balkans shouting “Not in our name” against NATO bombings, all the way to the Ciudad Juarez “Ni una mas” campaign against the slaughter of Maquila girls in the Mexican desert. We used to see all of these causes as parts and parcel of our general quest for justice. These causes and many others were grounding our solidarity and our understanding of the multiple layers of oppression and self-determination.

About half way through such an activist career, I realized I was ready for a crucial shift in my approach to politics. I could not address revolution as the goal of my actions anymore. Rather, I would talk about social change or resistance. Still, I could not avoid feeling disappointed for the very limited social improvements achieved through my intensive efforts. I suddenly felt I needed some kind of focus, as if my previous actions had been too dispersed thus dispersive.

Feminism allowed me to understand the slogan “personal is political” in its deepest meaning. Eventually, in myself, I found the focus of my thirst for social justice.

My body became my first source of self-determination: how could I grasp any sense of justice, if I am not pursuing pleasure and joy with my own body? “If I cannot dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution!” wrote Emma Goldman. Dance, as well as revolution, are based on beauty and pride and are certainly a collective practice. By dancing alone, any body has limited access to pleasure or to any other form of self-determination. Eventually, I realized that collective action is in itself a tool for self-determination, as it puts each subject in the position to develop identity and solidarity as mutually supporting processes.

Looking back, I realized that even if I had not managed to change the world, I had changed myself a lot throughout those apparently fruitless campaigns and demonstrations. Collective action is a necessary practice in identity politics against marginalization and discrimination. It has empowered me to deconstruct my own contribution to different forms of oppression. It has allowed me to evolve towards active citizenship as a status based on consciousness-raising and critical thinking.

In fact, collective action leads to recurring challenges for each subject. Some prefer fixed systems of rules and hierarchies, making it much easier for them to gain some form of self-confidence by sticking to fixed identities. I could not find any self-confidence in the discrimination enacted by these hierarchies. Some prefer to escape discrimination by building defensive walls around their private spaces. My experience of such private spaces looks more like a nightmare of isolation and depression, where my identity ends up hiding under a phantom’s blanket. Disagreement, disapproval and condemnation are unavoidable steps in the dance of solidarity. We cannot avoid it if we want to express ourselves in public space. Developing subjectivity into self-determined identities is everything but a glance in an individual mirror. Each and every identity ultimately grounds its developments on its collective performances.

Collective discussions and actions were and are still very critical moments. My quest for collective self determination often smashes against the apparently natural need for strong leaders and unquestionable truths. I still cannot easily avoid feeling inadequate every time I express myself within a group. I often think that most people around me are entitled to speak out more than me. Recently I realized how such feeling is actually a blessing as it immunizes me from the charm of leadership and the biases of ordinary politics, strongly influential even in grassroots groups.

In the last ten years I cyclically faced the limits of my achievements, actually experiencing my own revolution as a recurring confrontation with similar fears and doubts. But through these very practices I ploughed the field for the cyclical seeds of revolution. Nonetheless, my revolution is not at all a closed circle returning back to the same point. My revolution is a spiral ensuring that every cropping season the fruits in my orchard add a new fragrance to their scents.

Recently Sahat al-Tahrir in Cairo has become a symbol of revolutionary collective action in a scale that allowed Egyptians to get rid of a well-established dictator. In my personal memories, I see a hint for those among our readers wondering where this huge mobilization will lead. Collective action has in this case bluntly reflected a huge shift in the practices of citizenship in Egypt. Egyptians involved in this movement have gained a strong shot of pride and beauty that will support each one of them in their struggle for self-determination. Since overthrowing a dictator does not necessary ban dictatorship as a political option, cyclical revolutions will occur again in Egypt as in the rest of the world. Collective action will thus recurrently feed the future generations with memories and practices of beauty, pride, solidarity and self-determination.

- Contributed by Giulia

Guest Contributor

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