Revolution requires the transformation of social relations in society and political education should offer us the space for this process. This involves sharing values to shape the direction of that transformation and requires chaos and emergence to build a new world in the shell of the old. Although many of the facilitation tools used in contemporary workshops are participatory, they can still reinforce hidden rules and implicitly define how we perceive ‘good politics’, limiting the space for experimentation, learning, and growth. If we want to create space for transformative political education something needs to change.
Political education as rigid radicalism
Historically, political education for the revolutionary left has largely involved teaching a particular ideology. The writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have observed that “it was thought that revolution required a unified consciousness among proletarians: they needed to be taught that it was in their interests to overthrow capitalism”. Within this approach to political education, it was the task of a vanguard – an enlightened section of the working class – to disseminate this ‘ideological curriculum’, teaching the right information, values, and beliefs required to transform society.
In Joyful Militancy, Montgomery and bergman argue that teaching in this way is unhelpful, as it presents a rigid set of answers to any given problem that can be policed, called-out, and then used to shame and punish those who disagree. In this scenario, radicalism is an ideal, and everything else fails to live up to it, perpetuating suspicion, self-righteousness, and the constant policing of behaviour and thought. This approach crushes the transformative potential of radical spaces by creating a series of 'shoulds', morals, orders, and rules where one is never radical enough. This is ‘rigid radicalism’.
In the same way, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire criticised what he called “the banking model of education”, a process where information was transferred from teacher to student. He believed revolutionary leaders could not merely “implant in the oppressed a belief in freedom”. A better method, he argued, “lies in dialogue”. Dialogue, or participatory education as it is also called, is now mainstream in social movement political education.
Why doesn’t this feel empowering?
If we claim that what we are doing is participatory, nonhierarchical, learner centred, emancipatory, empowering, and transformative, then it must be… right?”
—Aziz Choudry, Learning Activism, 2015
Current popular education, even in its more participatory form, can remain rigid. There are rules about what constitutes ‘good politics’, the right language to use, and behaviours that are unacceptable. Underlying all this, there remains a sense that there is a ‘right way’ that will be policed in political education workshops to ensure participants become aware of their own ‘false consciousness’. This creates a feeling of rigidity, binding participants to a certain set of ways of behaving, thinking, and talking, and limits what kinds of action is ultimately possible. Constantly guessing what the ‘right way’ is exhausting and doesn’t feel empowering at all. Rigid radicalism is something we all participate in creating, it’s in the air of our movements.
What does rigid radicalism actually look like? In a recent conversation with a colleague, we were struck by the number of ‘wrong things’ that were called out during a workshop: a participant was frequently misgendered, another’s experience of colonialism was erased, and an attendee’s reflections of the intersection between class and race were ‘hijacked’ by an ‘oppression olympics style conversation’. I noticed their fear in sharing one part of the experience, saying the words to me, ‘I really didn’t want to do the wrong thing’. This isn’t about not challenging oppression where it occurs, but it is about considering how policing behaviour in such a way limits learning and action.