Relational Activism

In September 2002 I, along with hundreds of Denver activists and other “subversives,” gathered in the Denver Police Department to claim our Denver Police Spy Files, the secret and now illegal dossiers that the DPD had been keeping on Denver activists. We were anarchists, Buddhists, ex-nuns, non-profit organizers, radical Marxists and Green party politicians, American Indian Movement leaders and transsexuals. But to the Denver Police, we were all the same. To them we were all “criminal extremists,” reduced to our lowest common denominator.

We’ve seen how this mistaken unification has affected feminism. An important critique of feminism is that the experiences of a white, middle-class woman are likely to be very different from that of an aged homeless woman, or a Latina prostitute, or an immigrant woman. In many ways there is more separating these women than there is uniting them: economics, race, education, sexual identity, culture. Falsely homogenized on biology alone, their individual experiences are buried for the sake of a united front: Women.

Like feminism, one of the problems of The Left is the assumption that we need to be unified in order to succeed. But the experiences of a liberal 60-year-old Christian woman working for a non-profit organization are much different from a 20-year-old anarchist starting an urban renewable community, or a Gulf War vet against the war, or a Marxist working for immigrant rights, or an 50-year old male American Indian movement leader, or rabbis working to stop the oppression of Palestine, or a Puerto Rican lesbian getting arrested at the School of the Americas. And not only are there a variety of issues but there are also a variety of tactics, ranging from education and advocacy to direct action and civil disobedience.

But because of this need for “unity”, factions of The Left are constantly doing battle, trying to push their agendas and tactics to the forefront. As a result there is infighting, backstabbing, fracturing and burnout. Endless debates about which strategy is the most effective and which issue the most pressing. In short, a peace and justice movement without much internal peace or justice.

Norma Alarcon, in talking about feminism, says that “The subject (and object) of knowledge is now a woman, but the inherited view of consciousness has not been questioned at all. As a result, some Anglo-American feminist subjects of consciousness have tended to become a parody of the masculine subject of consciousness.”

The dominant society relies on concentrations of power and hierarchy. People squander lifetimes trying to climb power ladders. So while the function of The Left is to question and oppose these problems of the dominant societies, it still unconsciously functions through those same ideologies. Alpha personalities still dominate, often educated white males. Different groups form to work on identical issues because we don’t know how to deal with strong personalities, nor do we want to digest any criticism.  We reward workaholism until people burn out and disappear. We speak disrespectfully of other groups, other issues, other tactics.

But if activism is trying to eschew the dominant culture we first have to disentangle ourselves from the trappings of its ideology. We’ve become so good at critiquing our world that we’ve forgotten how to critique ourselves. And just as a common denominator of “women” makes it impossible to critique the relationships within feminism, “activism” masks the faulty relationships of the people within The Left.

Relational activism begins with individuals. It begins with a commitment to full respect living, both for others as well as towards ourselves. It unmasks the cultural one-up/one-down mentality: right vs. wrong, power vs. powerless, and exposes how The Left has succumbed to the ideology of the dominant culture, always one-upping the other as too violent vs. not violent enough, too radical vs. not radical enough, too liberal vs. not liberal enough.

The goal should be respectful “same as” relationships rather than stepping on one another in order to climb a ladder constructed by the very society that we want to transform. What does a nonviolent Democrat who believes in electoral politics have in common with an anarchist who believes in civil disobedience?  Maybe not much. And this is the problem: as long as the success of The Left requires that these two people become unified, there will always be power struggles. We need to establish solidarity and the full respect of our differences without the requirement of unification in order to end the power struggles within the movement, to understand that activism is a machine whose parts work in tandem. Once we stop competing, we can start collaborating.

The Dalai Lama says, “World peace begins with inner peace. World disarmament with inner disarmament.” And this is where we can win. The Left is human, with all its human shortcomings and strengths. And as humans, we have the ability to evolve.

NANCY STOHLMAN is the co-editor of Live From Palestine (South End Press).  She’s a former member of the International Solidarity Movement and the former organizer of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace. She currently lives in Denver. You can reach her at