18 January 2023

The graduation of activists


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous article]

Almost a quarter of a century ago a lecture delivered by an activist-turned-academic sparked an animated debate in the Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University. The lecture was delivered by a professor in the Law School, but I don’t remember her name.

The discussion was mostly about activism in academe. Many examples of academics engaged in activism were mentioned and discussed. It was pointed out, for example, that there is politics in academic circles, that certain kinds of research have a better chance of being funded and not on account of the importance or topicality of the relevant proposal. Academics have, we learned, agitated against such slant.

Was this transformative activism, though? Well, yes and no, depending on what you think transformation is or should be. A level playing field in the funding-games of a university? Perhaps. Maybe such things are parts of the transformational story.

It was pointed out, also, that the thrust of the discussion was about trying to prove that academics are activists and that there was no consideration of the flip side of the hyphenated proposition; simply, there seemed to be a reluctance to consider activists as scholars.

Karl Marx, it was argued, was an activist. He was deeply engaged in a political project which clearly framed his writing. And yet, it could be argued that much of social theory is in fact an engagement or conversation with Marx. One may or may not agree with his central thesis or some of the formulae he proposed, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that he was a preeminent scholar. He researched, he reflected and tried to account for all known facts and factors in developing his political, social, economic and philosophical theories.  

So, are all activists, students included, scholars? Not necessarily. Scholarship requires a lot of work. Reading, as opposed to browsing; engagement with texts as opposed to parroting the words of the party or party leader(s); constant self-reflection and self-criticism as opposed to relentless critique of entities considered as the enemy.

Consider the best known revolutionaries. They were all voracious readers or students of society, social processes, the play of power, the politics of things economic, culture, philosophies that carried the currency of the particular age, literature and the arts. They wrote extensively. They kept notes. They corresponded. They debated. And when they spoke it was not idle spouting of slogans but considered analysis of all factors relevant to the issue at hand. Doing the hard labor and putting in the long hours, in retrospect, seemed to have been preconditions for graduation from activist to revolutionary or visionary or prophet as they eventually would be called.

They were serious. They were not about the ‘like, share and subscribe’ relevant to the times they lived in. They moved their bodies into the line of fire. They trusted the robustness of their minds and they never compromised integrity. They were not cheap.

There was a time when the People’s Publishing House sold a lot of Marxist-Leninist literature. In Sinhala, Tamil and English. Lenin’s most important works came in a set that probably cost Rs 10 and which, adjusted for inflation would still be a steal. We called it ‘cheap socialism’ in jest, but it was good stuff, even if you didn’t agree with him. And in the University of Peradeniya, there were lots of young radicals who had them neatly arranged on their tables. Unread. Convinced they were Marxists, they would regurgitate whatever the party leaders tossed at them in the name of Marx or Lenin. A few probing questions would irk them and even prompt verbal and sometimes physical abuse.

No revolutionary has the last word on system, system-change, radicalism, revolution etc., but their works and especially their biographies say so much about these things. You don’t have to agree with the likes of Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Subhas Chandra Bose, Malcolm X, Ernesto Che Guevara, Augusto Sandino, José Martí, Salvador Allende, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Eduardo Mondelane, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Toussaint Louverture, Gongale Goda Banda, Puran Appu, Bhutave Rate Rala, Konappu Bandara and Don Baron Jayatilleka. And yet there’s much to be learnt from their political lives. There’s much to be learnt from Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks,’ Frantz Fannon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth,’ John Reed’s ‘Ten days that shook the world,’ the writings of Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN beginning with ‘Shadows of Tender Fury’ and the various treatises on Latin America authored by Eduardo Galeano.  

The Bible is instructive. The Dhammapada and the Jataka Katha have innumerable lessons. The Quran too, I am sure. The Thirukkural is a collection of gems. Pick some of these bibles and it is unlikely that the move would be regretted.  

All these texts and ‘writers’ have directly and indirectly informed scholarship on social and political processes and yet, very few among them wrote for the pure pleasure of an academic community. They were serious about understanding things and processes simply because it would make for more meaningful engagement and hopefully lead to the kind of change that is not cosmetic.

The revolution moves along a long, arduous road. There are no shortcuts to the country called ‘Change.’ It may take time, but activists cannot lose anything from graduating into revolutionaries.  In the process they will no doubt add to the literature on revolution and contribute to the corpus of knowledge on social, political and economic processes. Their graduation may or may not be noticed or celebrated, but learn they must, it can be argued.