Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah, eds, Revolutionary Feminisms: Conversations on Collective Action and Radical Thought (London: Verso, 2020). 240 pp., £17.99 pb., 978 1 78873 776 0
In striving towards revolutionary feminisms against a backdrop of world-changing events, the need for collective solidarity has never been more important. Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah’s book begins with this striking statement of clarity, first in the powerful and careful introduction written by the editors, and then in a sensitive unpacking across conversations with Avtar Brah, Gail Lewis, Vron Ware, Himani Bannerji, Gary Kinsman, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Silvia Federici, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Avery F. Gordon and Angela Y. Davis. This point is contextualised further by Bhandar and Ziadah on the opening page:
The feminisms we explore in this book are rooted in various political contexts and situated within a variety of political traditions. In fact, they are too diverse to easily name under a single heading … All of the individuals interviewed here, along with ourselves, may not agree on every detail – but we share the belief that freedom requires revolutionary transformations in the organisation of the economy, social relations, political structures, and psychic and symbolic worlds, and that this must take place across multiple scales – from intimate relations between individuals to those among individuals, communities and the state.
Setting the book up as a platform for this work, the ten conversations push beyond the limiting scope of small differences to engage revolutionary feminist frameworks across entangled, intergenerational evolutions of language and approach. The book brings feminist, black, brown, indigenous, queer, anti-racist, de-colonial and anti-capitalist resistance movements together, in interwoven threads of collective action and radical thought. Revolutionary Feminisms sites itself at this axis of collaboration, as the literal frame of the book enacts the necessary methodological framework of solidarity, which revolutionary feminisms cannot be without.
The ‘Acknowledgements’ section describes the completion of the book in March 2020, during the first COVID lockdown. The launch that October took place online, as the pandemic unfolded with disproportionate global effects. The palpable enthusiasm for the publication of Revolutionary Feminisms at this critical time supports the authors’ intention: these conversations might be a catalyst for further discourse, thought and action, around its central themes. The necessity to move events online allowed for an (un)situating of the book’s discourse in terms of the contexts it speaks of and to, both locally and internationally. Reading the book at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, it became part of a toolkit of guidance and collective feminist support – a toolkit all the more necessary in the solitary confines of lockdown, contending with the global events that Lisa Lowe points to in her sharp analysis in the ‘Afterword’. The years of research, development and writing that produced these conversations emerged at a particular time of unravelling, and aim to attend and support a continuum of ‘unfinished activisms’ that are ever more acutely necessary.
The collection of conversations is devised around a cluster of central subjects, starting with Avtar Brah, Gail Lewis and Vron Ware’s discussions of Diaspora/ Migration/ Empire. The evolution of Avtar Brah’s work on the terms of diaspora-as-method comes through lived experience and the influence of radical women’s resistance movements, seen for example in her work with the Southall Black Sisters from 1979 onwards. Drawing on Paul Gilroy’s terms of route and rootedness, Brah explains how if diaspora can be understood through its ‘connected spaces of knowledge and power’, it can be utilised as an investigative process into the constituting conditions and contexts of its making. Through this unpacking, Brah re-introduces the concept of belonging – as the opposite of exclusion – and the further need for expanded community frameworks.
Touching also on the complexity of belonging, Gail Lewis describes how this notion is often precariously situated through a set of limiting parameters. Underlining the importance of lived experience in engaging questions of race, Lewis positions the personal as political, particularly when observed and positioned through the scale of the domestic. Lewis demonstrates the potential movement that can stem from this scale, building towards collective action and processes of political change. Lewis asserts the need to understand the ‘presentness’ of colonialism and empire; the erasure and ‘disauthorising’ of experiential violence it forces to take place. In turn the subjective and the ‘felt’ experience becomes a critique of the fallible frame of objective knowledge production. Gathering diverse knowledges becomes a way to challenge colonialism’s ongoing, affective, asymmetric power structures.
Through a gendered reading of colonial history, Vron Ware discusses the development of her work on whiteness as a relational category that operates at the intersection of race, gender and class. A problematic absence of discourse on historical processes that produce whiteness allows the subject of race and racism to remain a predominantly non-white issue. Foregrounding a colonial ‘presentness’ in the construct of this condition, Ware frames this structural violence as something that takes place through a lack of responsibility or accountability, and points to intergenerational discourse as a pedagogical tool for dismantling racial violence, going beyond the scope of decolonisation to effect political change.
This initial collection of conversations reveals the interwoven nature of these discourses and their effects, as each describes the development of theory and practice through diasporic and migratory terms. They make it obvious that the figure of Empire cannot be escaped. In pointing to a ‘deficit of historical thinking’ in the discussed frameworks, we observe neo-colonial or ‘neo-imperial’ processes still at work – not a result of amnesia, but a product of the careful narrating of certain histories of exclusion. Each of these thinkers demands of us: how can diasporic and inter-generational methods work towards dismantling and rebuilding a better alternative?
In the section following, Himani Bannerji, Gary Kinsman, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Silvia Federici’s conversations are framed through the subject of Colonialism/Capitalism/Resistance. Bannerji points to how nationalism produced a distorted independence in India, arguing that neo-colonial strategies have produced hierarchies of ‘dependent capitalism’, which uphold a corrupt class system. There is a need, therefore, for solidarity and strength to be found and shared across the experience of ‘capitalist colonisation’ towards true independence. Bannerji proposes that legal and social technologies and thresholds produced through a colonial hegemony must also be recognised. She analyses Crenshaw’s argument for intersectionality, which, in the legal context of its development, is presented as a powerful tool for assigning legal accountability for race- and gender-based violence, along with its usefulness in describing and engaging discourse on complex intersections of this violence. Bannerji outlines how intersectionality seeks to hold the state accountable through legal mechanisms, despite the limitations of the law’s foundational inequalities.
Both Bannerji and Kinsman connect through this point, as well as Frantz Fanon’s writing, as Kinsman foregrounds Fanon’s argument that Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ to include and understand the lived experience of colonised and racialised people. Taking this further, Kinsman makes the argument for a queering of Marxism as a queering of the family and state.
Silvia Federici also points to Marxist roots in the formation of her political and intellectual feminist response to the violence of war, and the recognition of its fascistic and misogynist practices. Outlining the domestic space as an important site of political engagement and action, Federici points to the Wages for Housework campaign, which took the domestic space as a specific site of feminist struggle. This work critiqued forms of capitalist development that produced the domestic space as the location for unseen labour and neoliberalisms.
In contrast to discussions across the book on the neoliberalisation of education, in engaging Nishnaabeg intellectual practices, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson points to the ways that education and knowledge production also take place beyond institutions, within families and communities. She identifies the collective care of children as central to feminist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist struggle, and the centrality of active, intergenerational participation in fomenting revolutionary change. Simpson takes the questions of solidarity forward as a condition of responsibility, predicated on ‘relationships of care’, arguing that generating alternative futures must be based on a deep understanding of relationality and the potential of a ‘grounded freedom’ in solidarity and self-determination. For indigenous peoples, this means not only critiquing and dismantling violence, but organising, reconstructing and struggling as a ‘generative refusal’, as a way of creating alternatives, even with the risk of failure.
We observe in these conversations the description and analysis of lived conditions born through colonialism and capitalism, forcing a spectrum of methods and practices of resistance in response. The points of contact that create these practices of resistance are often initiated from a specific entry point across intersectional subjects. It is in the acceptance of this certain failure, as fruitful recognition, that transformation and development allows these movements to become more holistically engaged.
In the last section of the book, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Avery F. Gordon and Angela Y. Davis discuss the subject of abolition feminism. Gilmore draws on her experience of growing up in a family of organisers and activists, which provided a foundation for her work on race, class and futures of Black radicalism. She discusses the development of her interdisciplinary methods in the field of geography. She describes how coming to the discipline with a background in radical Black thought shaped her approach, and how through this engagement she came to irrevocably change the field. Gilmore suggests that prison abolition is a specific form of anti-capitalism, a form specifically against racial capitalism. Gilmore foregrounds an important discourse on scale – from the body to the domestic to the global – from multi-scalar to inter-scalar relations of social reproduction, that engage political consciousness beyond lived experience. Revolutionary feminism requires understanding violence across these different scales, in order to understand its interconnectedness and effects.
Building on this insight, Gordon argues for a radical rethinking of the known forms of dispossession as a way of eliminating its violences. Outlining the spectre of ‘haunting’ as the presence of suppressed or concealed violent systems in the everyday, Gordon contends that we need to stop believing that the forces producing such violence are able to deter or end it. Without a full understanding of the complex histories of violence that produced the prison system, resistance movements will struggle to grasp what is involved in fighting the police and military. Gordon brings the role of the artist forward, especially in their potential for engaging the praxis of revolutionary feminist methods, a proposal that emerges in several places throughout the book.
In discussing the ‘prison industrial complex’ Davis exposes capital punishment as a racialised reflection of the violence of slavery in the present legal system. Davis argues that reform – whether of prisons, police or armed forces – cannot address the structural reasons for racist and repressive forms of punishment and security, at any scale of effect. In consequence, abolitionist theories and practices must engage with revolutionary approaches in the move towards justice and real social change.
Such a brief overview cannot do justice to the richness of each of these conversations. The collective insight that emerges across the volume serves as a powerful introduction to the foundational, intergenerational work undertaken across diverse and complex sites of feminist struggle. The conversational format draws on the vast wealth of knowledge, experience and scope of the interlocutors, giving personal insights into the evolution of these foundational feminist movements of collective resistance and radical thought. The book’s framework serves to deepen our engagement with the work of revolutionary feminism, not as theory but as method and practice, fought and lived. As such, Revolutionary Feminisms is a tool of support for those currently engaged in ongoing feminist movements and struggles.
Several questions posed by Bhandar and Ziadah appear repeatedly, threaded across the different subjects. One example is the crucial question of the growing neoliberalisation of the systems of higher education. Perhaps connected to this is the question brought forward in the introduction in regards to Marx: the role of historical materialism. Articulated across the conversations is the necessary ‘stretching’ and ‘building upon’ of this work, as revolutionary feminist, anti-racist and decolonial thinkers challenge and rethink existing philosophical frameworks. The history of feminist work which this books charts shows that – whilst this may feel difficult and unprecedented – it has been an on-going process of change, both incremental and monumental.
Now into the second year of the COVID pandemic, with no real, sustainable, global end in sight, I continue to draw on the arguments made in this book for my own understanding of a complex, interlinked condition – the violence of patriarchy, colonialism, empire, racism, capitalism and ablelism. The undoing of these interconnected structures of violence needs a careful and sensitive understanding of this complexity, the longue durée of this lived and built condition. ‘Revolutionary feminisms’ are not a theoretical framework, but are made and unmade through lived experience, struggle and political consciousness. There has never been a more important time to take heed of the message in this publication, delivered through a chorus of powerful voices: revolutionary feminisms need to become a revolution of solidarity.