chapter  1
14 Pages

The psychology of power

Aspects of what I am calling liberation theory can be found in many and diverse contexts, from that of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of the 1940s to some forms of contemporary Western psychotherapy. The main route by which it became so influential in Women’s Liberation would appear to be as follows. To begin with (remembering that Women’s Liberation was born in the USA) the ideas were taken over from the Black Liberation movements.1 But the emphasis on consciousness in black liberation movements was not itself entirely homegrown. In that rather strange solidarity that existed in the late 1960s between the armed struggles of national liberation movements based in the peasants of the ‘Third World’ and radical movements of predominantly European societies, it is clear that the original base of liberation ideas was, in fact, the former.2 The major theorist was undoubtedly Frantz Fanon of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) whose most influential work, The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon 1967b), was said by Eldridge Cleaver to be ‘now known among the militants of the black liberation movement in America as “the Bible”’ (Gendzier 1973:28). The reason why such a striking difference in context did not affect the reception of Fanon’s thought is partially explained by its content. There are two central ideas. The first, as Irene Gendzier describes it, was Fanon’s assumption ‘that the perfect coincidence of an internal struggle accompanied by a political fight would invariably lead to a total regeneration of the social order’ (Gendzier 1973:28). (It is worth noting that Fanon was a psychiatrist and that for him the conviction that political confrontation was necessary for psychological health was not an a priori ideological commitment but developed out of his attempts to treat Arab patients in Algeria before his own political ideas were formed (Gendzier 1973: Part Two).) So it was the insistence on the general necessity of internal, psychological change for effective political change and vice versa which was taken up by

Black Liberation and later by Women’s and Gay Liberation, becoming one of their defining characteristics.3 The specific kind of political change sought, which of course was largely context dependent, did not affect this general proposition. The second idea, now unpopular because of the emphasis on ‘difference’, was that domination by human beings of each other induced a common psychological dynamic of power. In so far as this was assumed and what was thought to be at issue was domination, there was no barrier to one movement taking over from another the general analysis of the psychology of power and adapting it as necessary. And in the late 1960s the awareness of the psychological, experiential aspects of power-the ‘politics of experience’—was very much in the air.4 The other important theorist of liberation theory was (and still is) Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator with a strong Christian identification and emphasis, whose work began and evolved amongst the peasants of Latin America although, as with Fanon, the main reception of his ideas has been in the West. It might be thought that these two sources of liberation theory, one the ideas of a Christian educator and the other of a militant of an armed liberation movement, are distinct. In fact, however, Freire was very influenced by Fanon,5 and so it was for similar theoretical reasons that they shared a faith in the ability of peasants to achieve a revolutionary consciousness (for which Freire had the more moderate description of ‘humanisation’).6 What Freire did, however, was to systematise the ideas found in Fanon’s writings in an untidy form and to clearly distinguish the elements I am describing as liberation theory, the aspects concerning the transformation of consciousness, from the rest of the theory (Freire 1972). The latter purported to be an objective analysis in quasi-Marxist terms of the different political potential of the various social groupings in the nations undergoing decolonisation. Outside of the black movements where Fanon was read directly it was probably mainly through Freire that liberation ideas became known. Or rather became known in the form of theory. For more important, although not to my immediate purpose here, was the fact that the general ideas were widely expressed in the very popular radical literature of the time. Their strongest perpetrators were in fact writers such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Robin Morgan, Fay Weldon, Ti-Grace Atkinson, etc.