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Pre-2008 Posts

Making Revolution and “The Tyranny of Tyranny”


I had some time to talk with Jeyoani this weekend (my 31-year-old daughter who lives in Los Angeles, but was up visiting). She introduced me to the artist who created the image above, Erin Currier. What a find! And, I felt so encouraged as she urged me to keep on writing about the things nobody else is writing about, keep on writing what I have learned in my life about men, about women, about power, about revolution, keeping writing what I know to be true, what I have discovered and lived, keep on writing what is unpopular to write, what people don’t like and don’t want to hear, when there is every reason to write about it and every reason for people to hear about it. It’s not as though I would stop, but Jeyoani’s encouragement always lifts me up, particularly when I am feeling the aggravation of being the only person, or one of a very few persons, who is willing to talk about certain things, who is willing to say certain things, lay them out there, who is willing to take the hits for it. That’s not always the greatest place to be.

But then, that’s what being a revolutionary is. Making revolution isn’t a great place to be. Revolutionaries are never popular with mainstream people or those invested in the mainstream. Revolution-making can seem unrewarding and difficult in other ways; it can be tedious and wearisome. There isn’t any real blueprint for it. It is risky and dangerous in all sorts of ways. It is inconvenient, disruptive, and at times, exhausting. Above all, it can be lonely and frustrating. It’s a lot easier to like the idea of revolution than to actually live a revolutionary life. The moment things get tough, most people are more than willing to bail, to cave, to cut whatever deal they can cut if it will provide them with some relief.

Well, I’m getting to something. Around the internet over the years, I’ve often read references to Joreen’s (Jo Freeman’s) essay, written during the Second Wave, and entitled, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Usually this essay is dusted off and waved around when people get tired of the hard work of revolution. The words appeal to people who are frustrated over the inefficiencies, hardships, inconveniences involved in learning new ways of relating which challenge and reject dominance hierarchies, coercion, authoritarianism, rigidity, the state, structure, “big” and institutionalized and national in favor of mutuality, nonviolence, creativity, the sharing of power, respectful interactions which reject coercion, small, local and noninstitutional. This latter is hard work. It doesn’t come easy to any of us; it’s not what any of us has learned or known in our families, in schools, in churches, in the marketplace, in our intimate relationships. We have to make it up as we go along and making it up takes time and patience, sometimes more time and patience than most who fancy themselves to be “revolutionaries” are willing to give. It’s tempting to give up, decide maybe we really need structure, maybe we need authority, maybe a little coercion isn’t so bad, maybe dominance hierarchies are unavoidable or even “natural.” And so, the revolutionary spirit is lost, the revolution tarries, conflicts ensue, and the revolution is not made for lack of people willing to make it.

What I always think about when I read someone referencing “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” is the essay responsive to that article, entitled, “The Tyranny of Tyranny.” Something that is often lost in the referencing of these old essays is context, the understanding that they were usually communiques, written by people who were in the process of making revolution, often during times of conflict or difficulty. Where there is a bold statement on some issue, if you dig a bit, you will usually find a response to that statement or writings which provide important context and which are well worth considering.

Here are excerpts from “The Tyranny of Tyranny” written by Cathy Levine. The article is dated in some ways, but it is also timeless, and these paragraphs are excellent and inspiring, a reminder of the necessity of living in the revolution all of the time, because changing the world begins with changing the way we relate to our sisters and brothers in the movement we are all making hoping to change the world. Sadly, Levine’s words were not taken to heart. Not only was the revolution which began in the 60s incomplete, we’ve lost so much, and one reason is, people got tired. Revolution was hard. Caving is easier. Bailing is understandable. Well, of course revolution is hard. It commands all of one’s life and attention and energy.

An article entitled ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ which has received wide attention around the women’s movement… assails the trend towards ‘leaderless’, ‘structureless’ groups, as the main – if not sole – organisational form of the movement, as a dead-end. While written and received in good faith, as an aid to the movement, the article is destructive in its distortion and maligning of a valid, conscious strategy for building a revolutionary movement. It is high time that we recognise the direction these tendencies are pointing in, as a real political alternative to hierarchical organisation, rather than trying to nip it in the bud…

Joreen associates the ascendency of the small groups with the consciousness-raising phase of the women’s movement, but concludes that, with the focus shifting beyond the changing of individual consciousness towards building a mass revolutionary movement, women should begin working towards building a large organisation. It is certainly true and has been for some time that many women who have been in consciousness-raising groups for a while feel the need to expand their political activities beyond the scope of the group and are at a loss as to how to proceed. But it is equally true that other branches of the Left are at a similar loss, as to how to defeat capitalist, imperialist, quasi-fascist Amerika.

But Joreen fails to define what she means by the women’s movement, which is an essential prerequisite to a discussion of strategy or direction.

The feminist movement in its fullest sense, that is, as a movement to defeat Patriarchy, is a revolutionary movement and a socialist movement, placing it under the umbrella of the Left. A central problem of women determining strategy for the women’s movement is how to relate to the male Left; we do not want to take their modus operandi as ours, because we have seen them as a perpetuation of patriarchal, and latterly, capitalist values.

Despite our best efforts to disavow and dissassociate ourselves from the male Left, we have, nonetheless, had our energy [drained]. Men tend to organise the way they fuck — one big rush and then that “wham, slam, thank you maam”, as it were. Women should be building our movement the way we make love — gradually, with sustained involvement, limitless endurance — and of course, multiple orgasms. Instead of getting discouraged and isolated now, we should be in our small groups — discussing, Planning, creating and making trouble. We should always be making trouble for patriarchy and always supporting women — we should always be actively engaging in and creating feminist activity, because we ail thrive on it…

The other extreme from inactivity, which seems to plague Politically active people, is over-involvement, which led, in the late ’60s, to a generation of burnt-out radicals. A feminist friend once commented that, to her, “being in the women’s movement” meant spending approximately 25% of her time engaging in group activities and 75% of her time developing herself. This is a real, important time allocation for ‘movement’ women to think about. The male movement taught us that ‘movement’ People are supposed to devote 24 hours a day to the Cause, which is consistent with female socialisation towards self-sacrifice. Whatever the source of our selflessness, however, we tend to plunge ourselves head-first into organisational activities, neglecting personal development, until one day we find we do not know what we are doing and for whose benefit, and we hate ourselves as much as before the movement…

These perennial Pitfalls of movement people, which amount to a bottomless Pit for the movement, are explained by Joreen as part of the “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” which is a joke from the standpoint that sees a nation of quasi-automatons, struggling to maintain a semblance of individuality against a post-technological, military/industrial bulldozer.

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the “tyranny of tyranny”, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure.

Contrary to Joreen’s assumption, then, the consciousness-raising phase of the movement is not over. Consciousness-raising is a vital process which must go on, among those engaged in social change, to and through the revolutionary liberation. Raising our consciousness — meaning, helping each other extricate ourselves from ancient shackles — is the main way in which women are going to turn their personal anger into constructive energy, and join the struggle. Consciousness-raising, however, is a loose term — a vacuous nothingism, at this point — and needs to be qualified. An offensive television commercial can raise a women’s consciousness as she irons her husbands shirts alone in her house; it can remind her of what she already knows, i.e., that she is trapped, her life is meaningless, boring, etc — but it will probably not encourage her to leave the laundry and organise a houseworkers’ strike. Consciousness-raising, as a strategy for revolution, just involves helping women translate their personal dissatisfaction into class-consciousness and making organised women accessible to all women.

In suggesting that the next step after consciousness-raising groups is building a movement, Joreen not only implies a false dichotomy between one and the other, but also overlooks an important process of the feminist movement, that of building a women’s culture. While, ultimately, a massive force of women (and some men) will be necessary to smash the power of the state, a mass movement itself does not a revolution make. If we hope to create a society free of male supremacy… we had better start working on it right away, because some of our very best anti-capitalist friends are going to give us the hardest time. We must be developing a visible women’s culture, within which women can define and express themselves apart from patriarchal standards, and which will meet the needs of women where patriarchy has failed.

Culture is an essential part of a revolutionary movement — and it is also one of the greatest tools of counter-revolution. We must be very careful to specify that the culture we are discussing is revolutionary, and struggle constantly to make sure it remains inveterately opposed to the father culture.

The culture of an oppressed or colonised class or caste is not necessarily revolutionary. America contains — both in the sense of “having” and in preventing the spread of — many “sub-cultures” which, though defining themselves as different from the father culture, do not threaten the status quo. In fact, they are part of the “pluralistic” American one-big-happy-family society/ethnic cultures, the “counter-culture.” They are acknowledged, validated, adopted and ripped off by the big culture. Co-optation.

The women’s culture faces that very danger right now, from a revolutionary new liberating girdle to MS magazine, to The Diary of a Mad Housewife. The New Woman, i.e., middle-class, college-educated, male-associated can have her share of the American Pie. Sounds scrumptious — but what about revolution? We must constantly re-evaluate our position to make sure we are not being absorbed into Uncle Sam’s ever-open arms.

The question of women’s culture, while denigrated by the arrogant and blind male Left, is not necessarily a revisionist issue. The polarisation between masculine and feminine roles as defined and controlled by male society has not only subjugated women but has made all men, regardless of class or race, feel superior to women — this feeling of superiority, countering anti-capitalist sentiment, is the lifeblood of the system. The aim of feminist revolution is for women to achieve our total humanity, which means destroying the masculine and feminine roles which make both men and women only half human. Creating a woman’s culture is the means through which we shall restore our lost humanity.

The question of our lost humanity brings up the subject that vulgar Marxists of every predilection have neglected in their analysis for over half a century – the psycho-sexual elements in the character structure of each individual, which acts as a personal policeman within every member of society… The psychic crippling which capitalist psychology coerces us into believing is the problem of the individual, is a massive social condition which helps advanced capitalist society to hold together.

Psychic crippling of its citizens makes its citizens report to work, fight in wars, suppress its women, non-whites, and all non-conformists vulnerable to suppression. In our post-technological society… the psychic crippling is also the most advanced — there is more shit for the psyche to cut through, what with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the politics of “You’re okay, I’m okay”, not to mention post-neo-Freudians and the psycho-surgeons. For the umpteenth time, let it be said that, unless we examine inner psychic shackles, at the time we study outer, political structures and the relationship between the two, we will not succeed in creating a force to challenge our enemy; in fact, we will not even know the enemy. The Left has spent hours and tomes trying to define the ruling class; the ruling class has representative pigs inside the head of every member of society –thus, the logic behind so-called paranoia. The tyranny of tyranny is a deeply-entrenched foe.

Where psychological struggle intersects political involvement is the small group. This is why the question of strategy and tactics and methods of organisation are so crucial at this moment. The Left has been trying for decades to rally people into the streets, always before a number sufficient to make a dent exist. As Stone pointed out, you can’t make a revolution when four-fifths of the people are happy. Nor should we wait until everyone is ready to become radical. While on the one hand, we should constantly suggest alternatives to capitalism, through food co-ops, anti-corporate actions and acts of personal rebellion, we should also be fighting against capitalist psychic structures and the values and living patterns which derive from them. Structures, chairmen, leaders, rhetoric — when a meeting of a Leftist group becomes indistinguishable in style from a session of a US Senate, we should not laugh about it, but re-evaluate the structure behind the style, and recognise a representative of the enemy.

The origin of the small group preference in the women’s movement — and by small group I refer to political collectives — was, as Joreen explains, a reaction against the over-structured, hierachical organisation of society in general, and male Left groups in particular. But what people fail to realise is that we are reacting against bureaucracy because it deprives us of control, like the rest of this society; and instead of recognising the folly of our ways by returning to the structured fold, we who are rebelling against bureaucracy should be creating an alternative to bureaucratic organisation. The reason for building a movement on a foundation of collectives is that we want to create a revolutionary culture consistent with our view of the new society; it is more than a reaction; the small group is a solution.

Because the women’s movement is tending towards small groups and because the women’s movement lacks direction at this time, some people conclude that small groups are to blame for the lack of direction. They wave the shibboleth of “structure” as a solution to the strategic stalemate, as if structure would give us theoretical insight or relief from personal anxieties. It might give us a structure into which to ‘organise’, or fit more women, but in the absence of political strategy we may create a Kafkaesque irony, where the trial is replaced by a meeting.

The lack of political energy that has been stalking us for the last few years, less in the women’s movement than in the male Left, probably relates directly to feelings of personal shittiness that tyrannize each and every one of us. Unless we confront those feelings directly and treat them with the same seriousness as we treat the bombing of Hanoi, paralysis by the former will prevent us from retaliating effectively against the latter.

Rather than calling for the replacement of small groups with structured, larger groups, we need to encourage each other to get settled into small, unstructured groups which recognise and extol the value of the individual. Friendships, more than therapy of any kind, instantly relieve the feelings of personal shittiness — the revolution should be built on the model of friendships….




10 thoughts on “Making Revolution and “The Tyranny of Tyranny”

  1. Heart – Thanks for these articles. It has given me a lot to think about, not only theoretically, but in reflecting on my own experiences, especially a particularly disasterous experience working within a feminist collective. I literally left that job saying to myself “give me boss”. I did not like thinking this, but there it is. It was a complex situation and didn’t leave me believing that heirarchy was necessarily inevitable or desirous in all organizations, only that changing structures of organizations is very difficult, especially for people who have been raised in hierarchical structures. I became less naive about the difficulties of change but not irredeemably disillusioned.

    One thing that I have been thinking about lately is the question of the time frame in which I have both expected and wanted change to take place. I am starting to believe that thinking the revolution should happen in my lifetime is terribly egocentric and ultimately revolution defeating since it leads to a sense that things aren’t changing or aren’t changing fast enough, which can then lead to despair. However if I decenter, change my focus from big change happening now, to big change occurring over a time span longer than my lifespan, I no longer need fall into despair for I know that what is important is working to change the hierarchical patriarchal oppressive structure of our society, leaving my own small legacy of that work for the next generation, allowing the work to continue, without putting a time limit on the results.

    No conclusions here, just thinking about my mode of being in this world. One of the unexpected benefits of aging for me is that I no longer measure the world by my own lifespan. The world will continue (unless we destroy it first) after I die. My purpose is to influence, in whatever small way I can, the direction the world will take. The revolution will not happen in my lifetime. It will not happen in many lifetimes, but unless we keep working towards revolutionary change it will surely never happen. If we keep working towards change we keep the possibility alive well beyond our individual lifetimes.

    Posted by jfr | February 20, 2007, 12:26 pm
  2. I have many takes on this subject.

    One of them is, that the extreme social dislocation brought about by global warming and peak oil will result in the end of economic globalization and with it, easy access to the ammunition (which must be manufactured) that warlords need to maintain their tryrannies.

    What proceeds from there is anybody’s guess. But it is in that upheaval that I see womens’ best chance to re-establish autonomy that has been lost to us for millenia.

    Note that I say “chance”. Women have blown many chances, and may well do so again.


    Posted by Mary Sunshine | February 20, 2007, 1:16 pm
  3. Thanks Heart, and thanks for link to both essays.
    I think many of us took this structureless model to our parenting. Unlike other groups, in a family it is sometimes easy to experiment with a non-patriarchial organization because men tend to be absent from the dynamics, if not physically then emotionally.
    Because there is little respect and power given for parenting, men only inject their patriarchial instincts into the group on an infrequent basis. Both women and children learn to ignore and endure these occasional interruptions and proceed on with their non-hierarchical group dynamics.
    There is an attempt going on in right wing circles, especially religious, right-wing circles, to paint the filling of our prisons, and any lawlwessness as rooted in this female style of parenting. This is behind the change in custody laws to presumptive joint custody, behind marraige encouragement in social services, etc. The patriarchial powers recognize the threat women-centered families are to the society they have built, even if individual men within families do not.

    Posted by peonista | February 20, 2007, 2:56 pm
  4. Thanks for this great article. I am a big fan of Jo Freeman’s essay, because it describes so well so many of the problems I have observed in the groups I’ve been part of. I wonder if this writer is interpreting it as so many have interpreted Anne Koedt’s article on the “myth of the vaginal orgasm.” I never read Koedt, as so many have, as saying that penetration is patriarchal or not okay–just that it isn’t the be-all, end-all of sexual satisfaction for women and we haven’t really had opportunities to look for other ways. I read Jo Freeman’s essay similarly–I didn’t hear her saying “structureless groups are fucked up and should be abandoned.” I read “These are some of the problems that we’ve seen/created by the methods we’ve adopted IN REACTION TO patriarchal structures, and we should look at them carefully and make sure they’re really serving us.” I’m really committed to consensus process and personal accountability versus top-down hierarchy, coercion, and punishment, but as the article above is saying, without a whole hell of a lot of introspection and work on the self (constructed in patriarchy), consensus process and personal accountability can devolve into a big ol’ ineffective mess in no time. I don’t see the solution to that as a return to hierarchy and coercion (and I don’t think Freeman did either) but instead to look honestly at our own wants, needs, desires, failings, shortcomings, etc., be willing to be accountable to each other for what we do and fail to do, and to support each other to the best of our ability even and especially when we disagree or hurt one another–AND to create structures that support that. That’s a tall order, I know, but I don’t think Jo Freeman would disagree with the conclusions this writer comes to.

    Posted by Amy's Brain Today | February 20, 2007, 6:43 pm
  5. Really, really interesting articles. And it does give a lot to think about. I actually agree with both pieces. I would say that the times when you need structure, are the times when you have within your organization authoritarian people who, if not confined to a structure, will become dictators.

    Posted by profacero | February 20, 2007, 6:46 pm
  6. Profacero: High five.

    Posted by Amy's Brain Today | February 20, 2007, 8:29 pm
  7. This is mind blowing (maintaining retro tone!). I’ve been thinking about movements and where to find one a lot lately. I recently discovered feminist blogs, and this medium seems to me a post-millennial consciousness-raising forum. Invaluable. BUT I still feel isolated IRL where I see no action being taken on so many women’s issues.

    At my huge high school in a very lefty town, I am the only feminist teacher I know of. I was the only one to do anything for women’s history month last year (got some flak too) and I will be the only one to try again this year. I am the only one raising the issue of sexual harassment of girls in classrooms and hallways (a HUGE problem).

    Isolation is not only demoralizing and dangerous, it’s less effective. One woman is SO easily dismissed and/or discredited. It seems to me movements create (and are created by) a sense of solidarity. That can happen online, but then how does it get taken to the streets (and schools and prisons and kitchens and beds??)

    There’s a lot to think about in these articles. Thanks, Heart, for this and for living the revolution.

    Posted by roamaround | February 21, 2007, 1:59 am
  8. Oh, I have so much to say! I will say a few things and more tomorrow; every one of your comments has me mentally composing lengthy responses!

    I’m betting anyone who really has been involved in revolutionary politics has suffered through some really horrible experiences with “collectives.” I sure have. These have been some of the darkest experiences of my life. I’ve cycled throughout my adult life in and out of various kinds of consensus groups, collectives, feeling hopeful and inspired, deciding to go for it, then going through hard times, becoming disillusioned, pulling way, way, back, retreating to my hermitage for some number of months or years, and ultimately trying it again eventually, with renewed hope. I keep learning more, I keep getting better at it, and this keeps me hoping and willing to try when it seems right to try. I am not an extrovert; I’m not really social. I enjoy being with the many brilliant, amazing wimmin in my life, but I need at least as much solitude and down time as time with wimmin, if that makes any sense. I’ve struggled to know, in my collective/community experiences, when my difficulties are with the collective and when they have to do with my own difficulties in asserting myself, taking the down time and the quiet time I need. I have been well socialized in putting myself and my own needs last, both as a woman and as a mother of so many kids. I think in the past I’ve sometimes blamed collectives, communities, strong leaders, strong women, for struggles which were really more about my inability to take what I needed to be whole and human, to say “no” and mean it. I think these might be an example of the feelings of “shittyness” Cathy Levine is talking about. (And again, I’m just throwing stuff out there, priming the pump, there is so much to say!)

    I have had horrific experiences, of course, with horrifying, domineering, defunct, personalities, as well. It is true that it’s when we are dealing with these people that structure seems the only solution. The thing is, we have these people when we have structure, as well! One dedicated, disturbed, destructive individual, I have found, anyway, can navigate around, maneuver around, just about anything, including checks and balances and structures of various kinds, in his or her determination to control, whether people, the group, the group’s goals, strategies, whatever. I admit I don’t have any answers for dealing with this kind of person and situation, other than to get the hell away and start over (after taking adequate time to recoup from whatever you had to go through because of this kind of person).

    One thing I think a lot about is, it seems as though years ago, more people were more willing to just *do* certain things. Just *live* the revolution, day by day, moment by moment, in all of the decisions we all have to make every moment of our lives. It seems as though now this deep discouragement, or possibly cynicism (?) has set in in which people don’t think their individual, daily, revolutionary decisions matter. But they do matter. They are everything! The decisions each one of us makes about our lives on a moment by moment basis affect all of the people around us, all of our family members, all of the people we encounter, all of the people who read our writings.

    Well, I’m tired tonight and will be back; these are a few thoughts. Thanks for all of your amazing brilliance, you wimmin.


    Posted by womensspace | February 21, 2007, 4:36 am
  9. One more thought. In my intensives on intentional womyn’s communities at Michfest last year, one thing that resonated with a lot of the wimmin was my describing the way helping to create co-ops with other wimmin resulted in a deeper and deeper experience of revolutionary community. That struck me re-reading Levine’s article, that she mentioned co-ops as well. It seems like not so big a decision, to get together with other wimmin and decide to buy your food together as a co-op from a natural foods warehouse. But that one decision is actually a huge decision, with important ramifications. When you come together to form a food co-op, you must meet together, you must order your organic/natural/free-range/locally grown food together, you must gather when the truck comes to divide it all out, you must buy scales to weigh everything, you talk about the food/supplements/seeds/whatever that you use which you have really enjoyed and which are good, you buy food together to give to the local battered women’s shelter/rape crisis center/food bank, pretty soon you are gleaning in local farmers’ fields, you are growing stuff for one another, you are participating in community supported agriculture, you have very little garbage and what you have you can compost/recycle, you are building a supply of food and supplies for emergency, you are teaching one another to freeze/can/dry, you are gardening together, you are caring for one another’s children and animals.

    Come the events Mary Sunshine talks about, you are (1) prepared, comparatively; (2) you have supportive community.

    But to suggest to women that they form food co-ops– well, that doesn’t really sound that revolutionary or life-changing. But it IS. Because that decision leads to many, many more choices and similar decisions, leads to stimulating discussions, leads to building new relationships, severs relationships with chain grocery stores and agribiz, promotes what is local and community centered. This IS the way revolutions are made.

    Mary Sunshine, I was so prepared for what might have happened at Y2K and was one of those who was pretty much disappointed that it was just business as usual. I could sustain quite a few women on my 6.5 fertile acres bounded by a wonderful stream, with my own well and garden space.


    Posted by womensspace | February 21, 2007, 4:50 am
  10. The women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s made two things very clear for me, which I’d known about myself, but I then was trying very hard to reinvent me. There is no point. I cannot stand all that togetherness, all that chewing over and talking back and forth and nothing ever done. I act. It’s done. Next.

    If this, this internet feminism, is the feminism of the 21st Century, then it is my feminism. The feminism of my youth drove me crazy. Not to mention, it was women who were not like me at all; upper class, white, American, highly educated, from well to do families, draft dodgers (who now vote Conservative by the way) who were slumming, playing at being revolutionairies, who ran around raising their fists (eh?!) talking to us through bullhorns at the Take Back the Night marches of 21 people, who openly derided women were mothers and homemakers. Motherhood, family, that wasn’t work. When was we going to get real jobs, with a union?

    So I read about feminism, I was radicalized by what I read, but never by the conferences, the meetings, the consciousness raising sessions that were a mixture of Essomething, and Marxist/Leninists fighting with the Trotskyites, and the tearing down and breaking down and destruction.

    I found out I cannot take all that togethereness. 🙂

    Posted by Pony | February 21, 2007, 5:41 am

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