I am currently reading the extremely interesting autobiography of Christopher Hitchens at the moment. Besides the vast, vast , VAST amount of name-dropping, the work is enthralling, the narrative compelling, and the prose grandiloquent. But Hitchens’ recollection of the time he spent as a young Marxist revolutionary while at university is the part I find most intriguing. I didn’t realise it when I first came across his work, but Hitchens has a criminal record as extensive as his capacity for alcohol, the product of many demonstrations and altercations with the police, and in his time at Oxford managed to have an Oxford Debating Union meeting indefinitely suspended for the first time in its 147 year history due to his rather well planned disruption of a debate on the ethics of Vietnam. It’s all fascinating stuff (especially the parts where he talks about all the sexual encounters he’s had with men – but that’s my own personal, ahem, research interest…).
The part I wanted to share, however, is brief, but interesting:
“As 1968 began to ebb into 1969, however, and as “anticlimax” began to become a real word in my lexicon, another term began to obtrude itself. People began to intone the words “The Personal Is Political”. At the instant that I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was – cliche is arguably forgiveable here – very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic “preference”, to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words, “Speaking as a…” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation of disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment where the Left lost or – I would prefer to say – discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time I was to see the sell-out so cheaply. ” – p121, Atlantic Books (2010)
I’m not so what my friends and comrades in the liberation movements or the Left make of that, but I think he has a point. Not to say that those who work, hard, on feminism and other liberation movements are not making advances on behalf of us all, but that it is their work which matters and not the features they have which qualifies them to be termed “activists”. Sadly, many seem to believe otherwise.
Check out Hitch 22: A Memoir on Amazon.co.uk.
I think this is quite a valid point. Of course, we should recognise the experiences of those who have particular backgrounds or identities, but for every activist who actually does something, there are a dozen “activists” who just want to sit around and talk about how much they want to do something…
Indeed. In a somewhat releated comment, I was on room-cleaning duty today. In a Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre, so recently vacated by retreatants on a course to foster awareness and concentration, people had left their dishes unwashed, their beds unmade, and incredibly, their toilets unflushed. One can only wonder what on earth goes through the heads of people who believe, and pay to learn, one thing, and then practice something entirely different, be they activists or Buddhists.