A Letter to a Young Comrade in Latin America

Here is a response to a friend and her collective who saw the Green/Siegel film, The Weather Underground, and wrote with some questions….

Hey Elizabeth—

I’m weak at e-mail and would love to come down for a conversation sometime—so much better. Also do you have Fugitive Days? It’s a deeper account than the film. But I’ll give a try at some response to your questions:
1) We started off as anti-war and civil rights activists in the early and middle 1960s’. We were created by those struggles, shaped by a belief that you learn to act by acting, that you must grow and learn from practice rather than any received ideas, and that the optimal place to be—from which to learn the most—is to ally with the most oppressed, Blacks in the South, for example, the victims of America’s wars, and to cast your fate with them. The wisdom on the ground, we thought, will change you. And it did—those early years were when we saw for the fist time the connections between racism at home, war abroad, chauvanism, sexism, environmental degradation, apathy and cynicism, and on and on. Once things were connected, we saw a system at work, we were radicalized, we named that system—imperialism—and forged an idea of how to overthrow it. We were influenced by Marx, but we were formed more closely and precisely by Che, Ho, Malcolm X, Amlilcar Cabral, Mandela—the Third World revolutionaries—and we called ourselves small “c” communists to indicate our rejection of what had become of Marx in the Soviet Block and the other doctrinaire, authoritarian state socialisms. We were anti-authoritarian, anti-orthodoxy, communist street fighters.
3) What we need to do—all of us—is to recognize our huge responsibility to act on what the known demands—to become subjects of history—but also to acknowledge that in a vast and expanding universe, each of us is a finite and flawed being. This should not paralyze us. We must act; we must doubt. In other words, we act in order to teach, and also in order to learn. A firm and unshakable structure of ideas is not a learning agenda, it’s a prison. So the problem—complex, full of anguish—is to open your eyes to the suffering world, to act knowing that you, too, and your group, has blind spots. We act to change things, but also to change ourselves, to grow, to develop, to become more effective, to get beyond some of our blind spots and to encounter others. Those not busy being born are busy dying. And there simply is no recipe or script to follow toward heaven. If there were, we’d already be there. So: act, question, learn, act again.
4) In a world so profoundly out of balance there’s so much to do—I think having a single standard of action is a mistake. Everyone who opposed the war against Viet Nam was on the right side. I want to embrace Diana, yes, but also draft resisters, deserters, tax avoiders, demonstrators, letter writers. Let’s help them all make the necessary links. The more you know, the more you see, the more is demanded of you.
6) The details and dimensions have to be worked out by millions over the life of the struggle. But we have to make a stab at articulating the alternative if only to provide some guidance and standards for our actions in the present. If we know we hope to achieve a democratic and socialist world, a culture of life and love, our strategy and tactics are informed by filling that vision out on the ground, in the real conditions we find. In South Africa, the ANC opposed the hideous practice of “necklacing”, for example, and the NLF in Viet Nam condemned the random killing of civilians as terror worthy of the US.
7) Yes, we built organizational links—Bernardine was the Interorganizational (International) Secretary of SDS. The World Social Forum, Seattle and Genoa, the international movements for human rights, environmental sanity, justice for women, against racism, and more—this is the most hopeful time there ever was for a progressive globalism to oppose neo-liberalism and empire, the globalism of reaction and death and greed.
8) It’s hard, it’s hard, it’s hard… To me the key is just like any important relationship—partners, parents and kids, teachers and students, whatever: be committed to the relationship and to the deep humanity of each person; figure out through practice when to push and when to support; be patient; be generous; aim high; hold on. Forgive each other and still invite the best in each other. Appear before each other as the best you can be. Avoid self-righteousness. Ask the most of yourself… Clearly it’s not a formula, but a practice.
10) It’s so much worse now… It’s breath-taking. And we need to live against those things and embody an alternative.
12) I won’t make any lofty claims for myself, but I’ve been being told to grow up from the time I was ten until this morning. Bullshit. Anyone who salutes your “youthful idealism” is a patronizing reactionary. Resist! Don’t grow up! I went to Camp Casey in August precisely because I’m an agnostic about how and where the rebellion will break out, but I know I want to be there and I know it will break out—we are not living at the end of history, this is not a point of arrival, and another world is possible. But nothing will follow what we already know, so be alive, awake, ready… use your art, your brain, your body to try to resist the dehumanizing in society now, and to live an alternative.
14) Opposing aggressive war is always urgent, but for revolutionaries we need to both be fully activated in the opposition, fully supportive of mass democratic formations, and at the same time trying to make connections and deepen our and others’ analysis: Iraq, Guantanamo, Kyoto, New Orleans, Chavez, SUV’s, the death penalty… It’s part of one thing.
15) Yes, but it’s big. Look to the Interventionist movement in art, Chiapas, the new documentary films and radio, commix, and anything else bubbling from below.
16) People who think they’re “fighting from the inside” are often deluding themselves. Of course, we do live inside the empire, inside a city, inside certain institutions. But the indispensable element is always an independent movement pushing from below, from the margins, from outside. What ended the war? The Movement—we created the peace wing of the democratic party, but not by joining it. What created civil rights law? The Movement, not LBJ. What made the New Deal reforms possible? The Labor Movement, not FDR. Organize.



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