The Ringing Of Revolution
Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 10 and 11, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
The Ringing Of Revolution
In the 1960s, we believed we were revolutionaries on the verge of a new society. There was evidence all around, from
Great symphonies rise and fall in volume. When decibels are highest, symphonies are not always greatest. In fact, often, it is precisely when they are least audible that symphonies are laying their groundwork and gathering steam. Similarly, social projects sometimes hang on, reentrench, and get set to climax during calm passages. The low decibel times are often the hard part. They are often the critical part. Nonetheless, Part 2 of Remembering Tomorrow continues exploring high decibel times. Here is a poem, “Wheel of Law,” from Ho Chi Minh that meant a lot to me in 1969 and still does.
The wheel of law turns without pause
After the rain, good weather
In the wink of an eye
The universe throws off its muddy clothes
For two thousand miles the landscape spreads out like a beautiful brocade
Light breezes, smiling flowers
High in the trees amongst the sparkling leaves all the men sing at once
Men and animals rise up reborn, what could be more natural
After sorrow comes happiness.
The Old Mole Forever Surfacing
Revolution is not a onetime event.
The “Old Mole” was Karl Marx’s metaphor for revolution. It would burrow below ground, coming up to undermine capitalism’s foundations. It would show up uninvited. It would sully the polite gardens of the ruling class. It would ring in a new world. The Old Mole in
There were two communities—one that worked on and distributed the Old Mole and one that “consumed it”—and the ties were close. The Old Mole served the local left and with the network of associated similar weekly papers around the country was a powerful part of our growing movement. These papers incorporated lots of people’s labor, including people learning to work together in new ways. They generated a product that could be utilized for consciousness raising, morale boosting, agenda setting, and as an organizing tool providing information useful to undertaking actions including relevant timetables, addresses, etc.
The contemporary counterpart of the sixties underground press is partly local print papers, and partly the network that is called IndyMedia and Web sites more generally, including ZNet, the Web site I work on. Together, all this may well be larger than sixties alternative media. The internal clarity about values and social relations is often stronger now, too, due to lessons we have learned over the years.
The general political awareness of editorial policy may be greater now as well. But there is also unquestionably something missing. The Old Mole and other underground papers were a kind of cultural meeting ground. People identified with these projects and were excited about and personally involved with them. The office of an underground paper like the Old Mole was always alive and bustling. The announcements in the paper were grist for people’s weekly agendas much like TV listings currently organize many people’s evenings. The lifestyles and culture of people at the Old Mole and similar institutions weren’t contrary to those of the public that the papers appealed to, but instead grew from that public. If you looked at the way Old Mole-ers dressed, ate, talked, played, celebrated, and thought, and then did the same for their immediate audience of readers, and then did the same for a much wider pool of people beyond that reading audience, differences would be minor. The sixties counterculture was much bigger than the Left. The counterculture recruited from mass society. The Left recruited from the counterculture. The Left, in that sense, swam in a congenial sea. Old Mole writers and readers had a very large community in which we looked, talked, and celebrated like everyone else, just having somewhat more radical politics. The problematic interface was between that substantial sea of folks—the whole counterculture, which was considerably bigger than the Left—and the rest of society.
Nowadays, the Left has no massive surrounding congenial counterculture. We are no longer swimming in a much larger sea that we communicate well with. We are today right smack dab in society. There is no buffer between us and them, and our engagements with them are uncongenial not least because the gap is so large between how we look, talk, celebrate, and think, and how everyone else looks, talks, celebrates, and thinks. In the heady days of the sixties, in other words, we leftists didn’t have nearly as much need to deal with the mainstream. We could grow our movement without learning how to address people of wildly different style, manner, and commitment. We could venture into the nearby friendly and relatively massive counterculture to enlarge our size. Nowadays, to grow, the Left has to recruit among people very different not just in politics, but in tastes and preferences too.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.
The People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) was analogous, thirty years ago, to the coalition named United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) that is a key organizational locus of widespread
PCPJ formed to oppose the war and also to try to broaden the then-surging antiwar opposition into fighting racism, poverty, sexism, and other foreign policy injustices, giving rise to the “J” in PCPJ. There was a second key coalition at the time also planning national events. It was a creation of the Socialist Workers Party, colloquially called the Trots. It had less local infrastructure and wasn’t as multi-issue. This parallelism of old style and new style interestingly still exists thirty-five years later, with today’s UFPJ paralleled by an outfit called ANSWER, which fronts for the Workers World Party. Whereas I think UFPJ is more politically sophisticated in diverse ways than PCPJ was, having progressed over the years, ANSWER is arguably worse than its counterpart from the past, having devolved politically.
At any rate, PCPJ meetings that I attended could be characterized as having three main dimensions. The first was for members to report the day-to-day achievements of local chapters and member organizations, including their staffs and affiliated organizers. Local venues were where the actual work got done: preparing materials, arranging for and sending out speakers to all manner of sites; welcoming and initiating new participants to ongoing activity in the local offices, at vigils and at places where materials were handed out, and so on; and holding smaller events that fed into larger regional or national ones. Second, we heard about finances, which were handled by committees I wasn’t privy to. Financial reports would affect the budgets of national and local events and therefore what staffs and organizers could hope to spend. Third, we would decide matters such as dates of activities and their broad tactical definitions. PCPJ was a coalition of member organizations. Meetings were of representatives from those organizations.
I didn’t change my actions much as a result of the birth and growth of PCPJ, other than attending meetings, offering opinions, voting, and so on. I was a kind of roving PCPJ speaker, mostly to student groups, but at times, also to labor gatherings or community groups, which is pretty much what I was doing before working with PCPJ, too. Lydia Sargent and I met through PCPJ, and became interested in each other while attending a national conference. She became a staff person for the organization, handling schedules, literature, timing, and pretty much everything that made PCPJ go. This was when Lydia was first becoming politically knowledgeable. Even before that had fully occurred, however, she was helping make the office more effective, often contributing more than those who’d been involved longer in political activism.
Perhaps the major achievement of the local Boston PCPJ chapter was the work involved in carrying out a key local action timed as a close follow-up to the May Day demonstrations in Washington, DC. May Day was wild in the streets. We went, we dispersed, and we tried to shut down the city. Because of the action’s character, even though it was national, my guess would be that only three or four thousand people participated. We were young, highly mobile, and ready to rumble. The Boston follow-up was quite different.
Boston’s event was to be a day of highly organized civil disobedience. The target was Boston’s Federal Building. The proximate goal was to keep everyone out for the day. In that sense, it was like Seattle’s later anticorporate globalization demonstration, though this was local and therefore not as large. About 5,000 Bostonians participated. We surrounded the Federal Building, packing ourselves in, sitting in the streets and on the sidewalks and paths right outside, to block all axis routes. We surrounded the building from well before nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. Periodically some intrepid government worker, or perhaps a police agent masquerading as a worker, would seek to enter the building. The person would have to wade through rows of demonstrators, packed like sardines, with aggressive aid from a phalanx of police. Sometimes there was pushing and shoving. Other times, people were clubbed aside.
The human barrier took different forms and was differently effective at different doors. In some places people blocking paths were older and less physical. At the more active main doors, younger and more militant elements blocked access. Students from different schools arrived early and had different rendezvous and gathering points, as did members of organizations. So, at each site, all around the Federal Building, there were well-prepared contingents who knew how to handle whatever might arise, and how to help others who were less prepared.
There were also people to educate and agitate, and to try to enlist new participants into ongoing involvement. We also brought medics and lawyers, well organized and carefully situated. All this was courtesy of the groundwork done by PCPJ staff and main volunteers. Of course, the real measure of the day was not how many times the government could talk a civil servant into being escorted through our ranks by club-wielding cops. It was, instead, what changes occurred in people’s minds and in our organizational infrastructure by virtue of all the work leading to, involved in, and following upon, the events.
How many previously pro war people were shook up a bit? How many new people were, for the first time, willing to talk about issues with others? How many people became dissenters? How many people had their commitment increased (or decreased) and their understanding enhanced (or diminished)? What was the residual gain or loss in ties and organizational infrastructure that would facilitate organizing new talks, rallies, and confrontations leading in turn to a larger and more effective activism? When I went home from the demonstration, thinking through these questions was how I evaluated what had gone on. Many others went home tallying tactical trends, as in “how many people got in” or “did the war end.” As a result, I saw events as victories that they saw as defeats. I maintained morale where they felt shattered.
Regarding major decisions in PCPJ, there were always a few prominent fault lines. First was the issue of militancy and tactics. Some favored more aggressive or violent options. Others favored avoiding anything aggressive or violent. Obeying or disobeying the law was another divide. Sometimes an advocate, on either side, felt allegiance to a tactic, per se. Such a person might say le’s kick ass, because they liked kicking ass or at least they liked talking about kicking ass. Someone else might say, no, we can’t obstruct or maybe we can’t even march because obstructing or marching could lead to confrontations in which people might engage in violent acts—because they liked nonviolence, per se. Others of us weren’t always for passive nonviolence, active nonviolence, aggressive confrontations, or all-out ass-kicking, but were, instead, intent on choosing tactics that led to desirable outcomes case-by-case.
Other issues that were also nearly always debated included geography, as in doing things locally or centrally. For some people this, too, was a case-by-case matter. Would a greater local or national emphasis yield better results? Was a mix best? For other people, one position or the other was deemed always right. Likewise, small is beautiful meant for some PCPJers that you didn’t have to evaluate the actual situation, you just always knew you wanted local and smaller, not national and larger. Other PCPJers always felt the opposite. They always wanted more people centrally together, period. Neither side needed to think through each specific case. Their allegiances were for them a priori true. For me, tactical allegiances about locale, scale, or tone that considered themselves immune to context were incredibly frustrating.
I remember, for example, being in way too many excessively long meetings listening to people argue for big demonstrations in Washington, DC, on the one hand, or for never going to Washington, DC and always having only local demonstrations all over the country, on the other hand. The problem was that people often acted as if opting for one or the other choice was a matter of principle. They thought favoring one or the other option marked a moral divide. In fact, of course, the matter was contextual. We should have always asked what choice, given where we were at, would best propel us forward.
In these engagements, I came to realize that reasonable people could certainly disagree about all these matters, but that it was not reasonable to think tactics were anything other than a contextual matter. To me, then as now, whether we want to have sexism in a better world is a matter of principle. Whether we want popular control over social life is a matter of principle. Whether we want wage slavery is a matter of principle. The decision as to whether movements should embody these dreaded features, or even celebrate them, could by extension also be called principled. But choices of what to do in a particular context, for a particular demonstration, I considered contextual and tactical, not principled. Of course, my not being a pacifist, or much worse, law abiding, was a factor. If I felt that to ever lift my hand, or even my voice, against some target, was simply and irretrievably wrong, then, yes, some tactical decisions might have seemed to me principled. But that was never my situation.
To me, it became clear that whether a movement should be very passive or very militant, abide all laws or go out of its way to break some, seek only to construct or also to destroy, and, finally, whether it should wage violent assaults, even—or war—were all a matter of careful case-by-case judgment. There was a higher burden of proof for some behaviors than for others, certainly, but it was precisely because those approaches risked undermining lasting change.
In the sixties, sometimes I was dead set against aggressive marching, much less civil disobedience. Mostly, though, I favored such things, and even at times favored great militancy and disruption, including rioting. It depended on context. I thought ripping up a legal injunction might help us in one place and be disastrous in another. We had to weigh off implications. I thought moving from peaceful legal marches to civil disobedience might enrich our internal growth and spread our appeal, or maybe not, depending on the time and place. For me, the same held for sitting in, striking, occupying a building, trashing a building, or rioting. The principle was to enlarge, deepen, broaden, and intensify movement opposition to injustice and, in time, movement advocacy of positive goals. The tactic was to accomplish those ends rather than, hands waving and voices soaring, to do something that felt or looked good, but obstructed gains.
Another key fault line in the sixties was activists having various attitudes to the question of representation. There were meetings in which someone would talk or vote who responsibly represented a large organization’s members. Then someone else would talk or vote representing no one. Obviously, these should not have been treated alike, yet often they were. This was unsolvable, I think, short of having a much more participatory structure than was typical in the sixties.
Regarding discussion and work, there were fault lines about political differences that existed beyond coalition agreements. How would we deal with the fact that one PCPJ member organization thought x, and another thought y, where x and y were contradictory? Should we just not allow either position in the coalition and not talk about it? Should we recognize and try to address the divide? This was a conundrum, over and over. Later, I came to feel that solving this problem of solidarity along with autonomy was central to making practical progress and that we had never even properly taken up the matter in the sixties.
Another issue was race and gender. Everyone claimed, at least once the women’s movement and the Black Power movement had been around awhile, to understand the need for organizational congeniality to and empowerment of women and minorities. But accomplishing this aim wasn’t straightforward.
Likewise, many times in PCPJ the face-off was between those who were young and those who were older, and between those aligned to old politics and those aligned to new politics. It seemed to me, then, that the young and the new were more often right. We brought a multi-issue tone into the movement, as well as militancy, dynamism, and civil disobedience. We rejected old-style Leninist organizational hierarchy and sectarianism, even sectarianism toward sectarians. We rejected timid movement legalisms and primness. We asserted self-management, popular participation, militancy, and daily-life innovation. By and large, this made the young better than the old as sources of movement policy. But, there were also serious exceptions.
We young folks often made huge errors and took our insights distressingly too far. We disparaged many people for ignorant reasons. We celebrated ourselves too much, often mistaking bravado for serious achievement. There were older folks we could have learned from, had we listened more closely and had they managed to convey their lessons more adroitly. Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, and Tom Hayden, for example, were very impressive young people, and were right about a great many things. But Dave Dellinger, old in age though young at heart, would have been a far better role model. The point is, I only later realized, the issue in these disputes isn’t age. The issue isn’t duration. Among those with a lot of age and duration there will be fools as well as wise and effective activists, just as there will be fools and wise and effective activists among the young. The trick is to find insight and wisdom, whatever package it comes in.
That said, there is no doubt that in the sixties the lifeblood of left enthusiasm, innovation, and membership was youth. At a big meeting, if someone over thirty entered the room, it was reason to look up and smile, maybe even applaud. Nowadays, in 2006, almost the reverse imbalance obtains. For example, at an April 2005 conference in NYC called the Left Forum, opening night had a big panel discussion and a large proportion of the weekend’s attendees were there. I looked around and felt the average age might have been fifty, or perhaps older. This is a huge difference between forty years ago and now. It isn’t that there are too many old people now—it is that there are too few young people.
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do.
One demonstration during the years of siege in Boston and Cambridge was aimed at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs (CFIA). It was a three-pronged event. First there was to be a large antiwar rally at the Boston Common. This would be entirely peaceful, with no confrontation and no laws broken. It would have speakers, fanfare, and the usual rally protocol. Then there would be a march down Commonwealth Avenue through Boston, over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge past MIT, and on toward Harvard. This would arrive at a target for a militant demonstration.
It was not pre-announced where we were going or what we were going to do there. The idea was to not let the authorities know in advance. There was what we called, in those days, a tactical leadership committee. The same thing had existed for NAC and other events that required secrecy. Usually our movement operated entirely openly, ratifying and carrying out details of broadly agreed plans in public. In this case, though, the tactical leadership was given leeway. And leeway it took. We picked a real target, Harvard’s CFIA, but we discretely leaked through various channels that the target was, instead, Cambridge City Hall, about two-thirds of the way from MIT to where the CFIA sat on the outskirts of Harvard Square. The ploy worked. The Cambridge police were squeezed into City Hall waiting for our arrival. They expected to surprise us and quickly squelch our efforts.
I remember the large march crossing the Harvard Bridge. Few of us knew exactly where we were going. About half roughly knew what kind of mayhem was coming. The rest knew only vaguely that something was afoot. There were people rolling baby carriages. There were older folks who would be quite out of place. Some of us circulated in the jolly crowd telling people they should peel off just after Central Square. The message was received. We got about a block from City Hall and the remaining march, now just a few hundred strong, broke into a run right past City Hall and on to the CFIA, our real target.
When the running crowd got to the CFIA, entry was gained after Lydia went around back, found an open door, came to the front, and opened the doors for us all. One group then ran right into the building and trashed it from within, tossing stuff out. The other contingent ran around the building and started trashing it from without, tossing stuff in. It was amazing that there were no serious accidents due to those outside hitting those within or vice versa. There was bedlam and much damage quickly done, but the cops, though initially outwitted, were not resigned to utter failure. They trucked on up from City Hall even as we left the CFIA to avoid a fight with them.
A somewhat similar prior demonstration occurred in 1970, a day after a national Free Bobby Seale demo (he was the head of the Black Panthers and incarcerated at the time). First we held an antiwar rally at Boston Common. Then, as in the CFIA case, a march went to Cambridge, thinning along the way, leading into Harvard Square. At the Square there ensued one of the few organized, rather than spontaneous, sessions of mayhem and destruction that we had in those days.
Mostly the attacks were against large chain stores, luxury designer-type stores, and every bank and office that anyone could find. Bookstores and small restaurants and newsstands, and even small clothing or specialty stores, were spared. Everything else in range was a target for hundreds of stones and bricks. At night, street fighting continued, and considerable looting as well. But this was the sixties and the other side wasn’t comatose. I remember not only running around dodging police, but also standing and watching people trying without the slightest success to break massive windows in banks and in one particularly hated upscale clothing store. The owners of these establishments were not fools. They saw the sixties like some Floridians see hurricanes, and they had prepared with seriously shatterproof windowpanes.
The festivities—and these types of events did have a festival atmosphere— went on late into the night. I had an apartment at the time above some stores in Harvard Square and my friends and I were in and out for hours. Was there any point to rioting? Did it matter? Was there a downside? I felt at the time that the rally had the virtues of displaying our numbers, incorporating new people, and developing our capacities. The same was true of the march. The same held, also, for the later CFIA event, though, of course, it had its problematic aspects. But what about the riot itself?
My criteria then, as now, for judging this weren’t much different than my criteria for judging anything else. Did it help those involved to arrive at a higher level of comprehension and commitment? (I doubt it.) Did it convey an image to people not involved that prodded them to think about society in ways that increased their likelihood of moving left? (For some yes, for others no.) Were those involved made more likely to stay active due to their involvement? (For some probably yes, for others no.) Were those who viewed the events or heard about them given reason to turn away from the Left rather than toward it? (Again, some yes, some no.) You have to remember, this was an action on top of lots of other actions, leading in turn to more, with recurring opportunity to convey counterimages to the worst that the media presented.
For me, the issue, then as now, wasn’t how many windows were broken, how many laws were violated, how many knees were bruised, or how many heads were busted. It was the impact our acts had on the internal and outreach attributes of the movement and on the audience it sought to organize. I don’t know the answer. My guess is we could have done better.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
In my life I have had one recurring nightmare. It was in my teen years. Planes flew over and dropped packages held by parachutes. The packages, floating gently down, contained nukes. Next, rockets blasted the world. Then I’d wake up. I didn’t want to let anyone into that dream.
At the Z Media Institute summer school, in the mid-1990s, Stephen Shalom taught sessions on U.S. foreign policy, including addressing the Cuban Missile Crisis. This crisis was a time when our planet came closer than ever before, and probably than ever since, to nuclear war. It had inspired my nightmare. I went to hear Steve’s session. He recounted how U.S. officials slept in bomb shelters throughout the crisis, how the CIA told Kennedy that they estimated a one-third to one-half chance of all-out nuclear war if he was belligerent, and Kennedy went ahead anyway. That was, the media told us, Kennedy at his finest—and that’s my image of Washington, DC.
The United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In the 1960 presidential election between Nixon and Kennedy, Steve recounted, the hawk in that campaign—the more militaristic candidate—was the Democrat, John Kennedy. Kennedy said that a missile gap had opened under the do-nothing Republicans. He insisted that we hadn’t built enough missiles to stay even with the Soviet Union. Using this scare tactic, among other means, Kennedy got elected.
In truth, there was indeed a missile gap, but contrary to Kennedy’s claims, it was a gap of about 100 to 1 in the U.S.’s favor, as U.S. spy satellites confirmed.
U.S. officials decided they would tell the Soviet Union that we knew the gap was in our favor, while they told the American people the opposite. Shalom continued: You see Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was a bit of a cheapskate. He thought that although the Soviet Union knew how to build missiles, they cost a lot of money. So he’d talk a big game and make a lot of threats and pretend he had a lot of missiles, but wouldn’t build them. On May Day, he would have military parades in Red Square and he would have the Soviet Air Force fly over Red Square and they would go around behind some clouds and come back and fly over again and you would see more and more waves of planes and you would say, wow, look at that! It’s all very impressive, but Khrushchev in fact didn’t build any significant number of ICBMs.
So the United States, led by Kennedy, said to Khrushchev, we know you’re bluffing. You can’t push us around. In fact, we’re going to push you around now because we’re the ones who’ve got the advantage. In addition to its ICBMs, intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, the U.S. also had shorter range nuclear missiles in Turkey, right on the Soviet border.
Shalom recounted how the Soviet Union decided to respond to this nuclear imbalance by putting Soviet missiles in Cuba, ninety miles from the United States. They did so, secretly, but U.S. spy planes saw the missile sites being constructed, and Kennedy had to decide how to respond to this. One option, Shalom told the ZMIers, was to do nothing. After all, the Soviet Union could, in any event, deploy missiles in the Soviet Union. (Whether you’re hit by a missile from Cuba or from Russia doesn’t matter much, admitted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.)
Neither side was planning to launch a sneak attack on the other, so what’s the big deal? A second option was to use this opportunity to do some disarming. We could say to the Soviet Union, hey, we’ll trade our missiles in Turkey for your missiles in Cuba. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of some intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, too. Those two approaches were rejected by the Kennedy administration.
They didn’t advance militarism, imperialism, and U.S. war-making capability. Instead, the debate within the administration centered on three other options: (1) invade Cuba; (2) launch air strikes to take out the Soviet missile sites; and (3) put a blockade around Cuba to prevent remaining missiles from reaching the island.
The Air Force thought the air strike was the best strategy and Kennedy said to them, well, what happens when we knock out those missile sites, would we kill any Russians? The Air Force replied that we’d probably kill a few thousand Russians. Kennedy asked what happens if the Soviets respond by attacking West Berlin?
That will start a nuclear war, remarked the Air Force. Kennedy was not that rash, and said he’d go with the blockade. But of course the problem with the blockade was that there was still enough equipment in Cuba that they could build from what they had, and how would a blockade stop that? Kennedy went on television and said that he was putting a blockade around Cuba. Any Soviet ship heading to Cuba would be stopped and searched. If it had military equipment, it would not be let in. Now, this was an act of war. Countries are allowed to trade with whomever they want. The United States didn’t ask Soviet permission before sending its missiles to Turkey. Countries send weapons as their sovereign right to other countries. Anyway, Kennedy announced the blockade. Khrushchev responded that he was not backing down. He was sending ships through. The U.S. Navy said it would sink any ships that tried to get through. The Soviet Union said they had submarines in the area and would sink us back, and the U.S. built up its force, and a Soviet ship got steadily closer to the U.S. blockade and it was a very scary 24 hours. Ultimately, Khrushchev turned his ships around and Dean Rusk, the U.S. Secretary of State, said it was a “game of chicken.” “We were eyeball to eyeball, and they blinked first.” The survival of the human race—a game of chicken.
Khrushchev offered Kennedy to trade the missiles in Cuba for the missiles in Turkey. Kennedy said that was unacceptable. You must grovel. You must surrender. There are some analysts who now say that privately Kennedy had decided that before he started a nuclear war he would have been willing to trade the missiles, but what’s interesting is that for many, many years, even supposing that claim is true, it wasn’t known. All the members of the Kennedy administration and all those writing about the Cuban missile crisis who said this was Kennedy’s greatest hour thought that one of the great things about it was that Kennedy was willing to risk nuclear war in order to enforce the principle that the United States is allowed to put missiles in Turkey, next to Russia, and the Soviet Union is not allowed to have some missiles in Cuba, next to Florida.
Moreover, the U.S. missiles in Turkey were obsolete. The United States had already decided to remove the missiles in Turkey, not because the Soviet Union wanted them out, but for other reasons. The United States had recently developed submarine-launched missiles and thought it would be better to put submarines in the Mediterranean that could hit the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. There was no need to retain vulnerable land-based missiles in Turkey. The missiles in Turkey were precarious. They were aboveground and a terrorist driving by could shoot a bullet through one of them. Thus, the United States was willing to risk nuclear war rather than trade off obsolete missiles for Soviet missiles. This was what has become known as Kennedy’s greatest moment—the greatest victory of the Cold War. And it gave me nightmares. And those nightmares, apolitical, prepolitical, during my late high school and early college days, no doubt fueled my passions about the government in Washington, DC, and still do.
Of course, beyond the missile crisis and the Cold War, the main impetus for my own radicalization was Vietnam. It made my life what it is, even as it corrupted, curtailed, made courageous, or terminated millions of other lives, at that time and ever since. I remember a waking dream. I was in the TV room of a house I had lived in through high school. There was a woman with me, someone I had met at the sanctuary at Brandeis. Suddenly, I guess it was a psychosis of a kind, I was in Vietnam, a place I had never seen and still haven’t visited. It was as if the TV room was the jungle. The warmth we had was suddenly for survival and not for pleasure. The sky was falling. The daydream lasted only a few minutes, though it was very vivid. Dreams aside, for me Vietnam will last forever, vividly. Imagine what Vietnam is for those who directly suffered its falling skies.
In Vietnam, the United States set numerous records for military malice. World War II was the Good War, Vietnam was the Bad War, and today very few Americans will say the Vietnam War was not a mistake. In Jane Fonda’s autobiography, My Life So Far, she wrote that Vietnam persisted because bad presidents wanted to win elections and not seem wimpy. Bad persons were Jane’s enemy. Other New Leftists, including myself, became more institution-oriented. The difference wasn’t energy, commitment, or militancy. Jane gave her all. Who could ask for more? The difference was perspective. Heart matters, but so does mind. Even gung-ho military types agree that something went wrong. And yes, there were mistakes involved, and human venality, but of course, the sadder truth is that the Vietnam War wasn’t a mistake at all, but a logical outgrowth of U.S. foreign policy.
The argument against Vietnam being an imperialist war goes, as Shalom told his ZMI students: “Look, we spent more in Vietnam than any possible estimates of the total value of any investments then or in the future in Vietnam. So how could finances have been the motivation?” Shalom answered his own question. There’s a bank down the street. Let’s say the bank is robbed and the robbers take $5,000. The police will chase these robbers. They will chase them across state borders. They will spend great amounts to catch them, put them on trial, and put them in prison. And if you add up that total cost–of the police work, the courts, and the prison—it will be incredibly beyond $5,000, and so you might say, well, what’s the logic of that? Well, the logic of it is—as any public official will readily tell you—that if you don’t stop this bank robber—if you let this bank robber get away with it—if you let bank robbers know they can get away with this kind of thing, there will be bank robberies all over the place. And so the purpose of catching and punishing this bank robber, whatever the cost, is not just to punish this one but to deter others, and that’s the way one needs to look at U.S. foreign policy.
The U.S. position in the sixties, until the nineties when it began to look at literally everything greedily, was that the entire world except for China and the Soviet Union was part of the American capitalist system. As Shalom put it, against China and the Soviet Union Washington would try subversive actions, but it wasn’t going to pursue an all-out war. The rest of the world, however, was going to be subordinated to the United States, and so Washington had to deliver an uncompromising message to third-world revolutionaries everywhere: If you try to break out, we will smash you. The benefit U.S. policy makers expected to get from defeating the Vietnamese was not that this one piece of territory would be added to the U.S. empire instead of extricated from it, but rather that everyone would understand that you don’t leave the U.S. empire when the United States doesn’t want you to leave it.
United States officials talked about the domino theory and claimed that if Vietnam falls, Laos will fall, Cambodia will fall, Thailand will fall, all like a stack of dominos. That’s why we’re in Vietnam, said Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. What they meant was that subversives were going to come in from outside and hop from place to place and overthrow otherwise stable systems. The claim was ridiculous. There were no hoppers and there were no otherwise stable systems. But there was a sensible version of their theory, which was that if revolution succeeded in Vietnam, revolutionaries in other countries would say, hey, we could have better lives too. We don’t have to accept U.S. domination. To prevent that lesson from spreading, what Chomsky called “the threat of a good example,” it was crucial for the United States to make sure the Vietnamese revolution failed. The Vietnamese couldn’t be allowed to become free and prosperous, not because we were sadists, but because our elites wanted to maintain their world dominance.
For the United States, Vietnam was a war to prevent the spread of a good example. It was a war to demonstrate U.S. might and resolve. It was a war to teach that resistance is futile and costly. It was a war to drop bombs, bombs, and more bombs. Millions died. For the Vietnamese, Vietnam was resistance to win independence and freedom. It was resistance to demonstrate that the power of the people is greater than the man’s technology. It was resistance to inspire, inform, and motivate. It was resistance to fight, fight, and fight—to win a new world. Washington was the architect of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia’s destruction. It was a giant axe mercilessly beheading nations. Washington won the proximate war. Freedom-inspired dominos did not fall. At the same time, Vietnam not only repelled our troops—its aspirations will win in the end. And I sure as hell hated Washington. And I sure as hell loved the spirit of the Vietnamese resistance.
Vietnam was for me a parent, a brother, a sister, a life guide. Vietnam was and still is everything for me. But then again, so is Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, and so are Watts and Seattle, and every employee punching every clock, waiting for, and at some deep level, however unknowingly, getting ready to fight for, liberation.
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway.
The 1967 Pentagon demonstration kicked off the massive period of the national antiwar era. Roughly 200,000 of us assembled in DC and marched to the Pentagon. There were Yippees trying to levitate the place, militants hoping to rumble, organizers celebrating the turnout and energizing themselves for more to come, and attendees mostly moving further leftward. The event was a great success. The Pentagon was ringed with young soldiers standing at attention, holding rifles with bayonets. This was the home of the masters of war, after all. But the Pentagon’s guards could be dealt with. Organizers talked to them. Hippies put flowers into the barrels of their guns. The soldiers were a captive audience, at least until the final stages over thirty hours later. They had to stand. They had to hear us out. Every so often one would break down, drop his weapon and walk off, sick at the position he was in. Whoever defended the citadel of violence was assaulted by men, women, girls, and boys all exuding peace and calmly presenting stomach-turning facts about the military’s behavior.
Only a small number of soldiers broke ranks, but you could easily see harbingers of the dissolution that was to come in the forests of Vietnam. Most of the impact was on us and on the country. But on the other side, it wasn’t just the soldiers who had their consciousness jolted and went AWOL. Daniel Ellsberg later reported that on the day of the demonstration he had been in Robert McNamara’s office, helping draft plans to invade North Vietnam. Hearing noises, Ellsberg and McNamara went to a window and saw demonstrators being clubbed. Ellsberg reports looking on and saying to himself, “They are putting their bodies where their hearts and minds are. What would happen if I did that?” Just as watching card-burnings in the Arlington Street Church changed me, Ellsberg was changed by watching our collective resistance to the Pentagon. He followed suit in his own way, surreptitiously releasing the aptly titled Pentagon Papers. That is a real profile in courage.
I could also see at that time the tremendous power of a movement that was only a little bit beyond its audience in the broader society, a movement that didn’t appear so different, so otherworldly, as to seem crazy or alien. This is precisely what was lost to our movement as time passed. The movement began to separate itself in its internal manners, tone, style, and appearance from its potential audience. This was largely, I think, an identity problem, but it caused a communication problem. At first we were Americans, concerned about our country’s misadventure. Then we were hippies, with confrontational cultural consciousness. Then we were outlaws situating ourselves as far from the mainstream as we could take up residence. Had we been able to remain concerned Americans but with more and more consciousness, our ability to reach others might have been greater. We were too insecure for that, though. Politics had come into our lives too quickly. From school to mayhem, from the constitution to anarchist manifestoes, from Jefferson to Che—we transformed overnight.
Our commitments were often tenuous and we protected ourselves against backsliding by going further and further from our past as forcefully as we could. It’s easy to see in hindsight that aggressively differentiating ourselves was self-defeating. But we faced a Catch-22. Those who didn’t escalatingly rebel almost universally slid back toward the mainstream. How do I put this? We went from doubting deceit, to doubting everyone over thirty, and from doubting everyone over thirty to decrying everyone over twenty-five. Smash patriarchy became smash monogamy, and for some, it even became smash your parents. Rejection of the war, racism, and later sexism was paramount, to be sure, but personal devolution pursuing independence sometimes warped its potentials. In hindsight, we could have achieved more had we avoided overplaying our hands. But it could be that as we thought then, had we not overplayed our hands our hands would have overplayed us.
Looking back, I can see that it was hard, especially when young and surrounded by deceit, to not put up barriers to separate ourself from the rot. And the easiest barrier to erect was a wall of difference and denigration. Instead of being organizers rooted in new insights as well as in respect for and communication with the broad population we needed to reach, we let the allure of our new insights drag us away from continuing connection to that broad population. This distancing of ourselves from the lives lived all around us, plus our inability to move from fighting for ideas and lifestyles to fighting for lasting institutional gains, were two of the key reasons our sixties movements accomplished less than we might have. These same factors diminished movement achievement in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, too.
In a building of gold, with riches untold,
lived the families on which the country was founded.
Years later, Lydia and I were in Washington for a very different, but also massive, antiwar event, and on the way to it we visited our then-South End Press coworker Cynthia Peters at her home. Cynthia came aboard SEP at a very young age, but right from the start was not only a full contributor but a leading light and tireless and innovative builder of alternative institutions as well as an innovative community organizer.
Cynthia’s father—Cynthia fell far from the family tree—worked for the CIA his whole adult life. He climbed the infrastructure and for many administrations briefed presidents on CIA news and projects. The presidents came and went. Cynthia’s dad remained. He was part of the permanent government.
Cynthia’s dad was serious business and during my brief time at Cynthia’s house, her dad, Mr. CIA, and I got into an interesting discussion. It was not long after the United States had invaded the tiny island of Grenada to further U.S. aims there, eliminating any chance for there to be a government that might nationalistically pursue the well-being of the tiny island’s citizens even against U.S. desires. Possible extrication from what was called the “Free World” to pursue domestic development in their own style was, of course, also the sin of the Vietnamese, the Nicaraguans, the Salvadorans, and so on.
Grenada’s entire military establishment could have been quickly defeated, I would wager, by the police force of Phoenix, Arizona, or certainly by the campus police of the University of Chicago, which was the fourth-largest military force in Illinois after the Illinois National Guard, the Illinois state police, and the city of Chicago’s police force. This latter fact I learned when speaking at that campus. I heard about how freshmen would have an opening indoctrination session in which they were told that if they strayed off campus they were on their own, and that the campus police were there to prevent that disastrous possibility and to protect them while they were on campus. The University of Chicago, you see, was on the edge of Chicago’s black side of town, and the line between town and campus was a serious matter. Cross at your own risk. Think about a country with such an internal divide needing such a force to patrol its centers of higher learning. Well, that was the country that wreaked havoc upon the tiny little island of Grenada.
The CIA Web site tells us, in 2005, that Grenada’s population is just under 90,000 people. It is “about twice the size of Washington DC,” the CIA site reports. Under “Background,” the site has this to say, and only this: “One of the smallest independent countries in the western hemisphere, Grenada was seized by a Marxist military council on 19 October 1983. Six days later the island was invaded by US forces and those of six other Caribbean nations, which quickly captured the ringleaders and their hundreds of Cuban advisers. Free elections were reinstituted the following year.” Without belaboring the point, what really happened was the United States trounced the widely-backed domestic preferences of the people of Grenada into oblivion.
So, at Cynthia’s house, her dad and I got into a discussion of the events. I was condemning, of course, what my country had done, and while Cynthia’s dad was generally completely closemouthed about politics—not just with guests but also with Cynthia and her whole family and all their friends, as a good career CIA officer should be—with me, for some completely unfathomable reason, he momentarily loosened up just a tiny bit.
He asked me why I thought the U.S. did it. I said I believed it was to punish even the prospect of another country, no matter how tiny, escaping from subordination to U.S. dictates, and in particular, to prevent the spread of such behavior. In Chomsky’s words, I said, it was to curb the threat of a good example. Mr. CIA said, but how could such a small place matter? I said, if this minute speck in the ocean could extricate itself from subservience to our international priorities, then other countries would think they could do so too—such as Brazil, not having sufficient foresight to suggest Venezuela.
I added that this was also my view about the motives driving the Indochina War. I thought it was ridiculous to think it was a war for tungsten or for some other resource found in Indochina. There was nothing Vietnamese so needed by the U.S. that even megamaniacs would risk the U.S. economy’s stability to fight for it. Rather, the domino theory, just as Kissinger claimed, was the real explanation. But it was not Kissinger’s stated domino dynamic at work. Kissinger didn’t really think that if we didn’t intervene and kill the communist parasite, marauding commies from outside would infect, subvert, and topple country after country.
That was nonsense promulgated only to rationalize our actions. Kissinger worried instead about a “good example” domino dynamic: that is, the idea that if Vietnam could extricate itself and use its national resources and assets for the well-being of its own people, so too might Thailand, Malaysia, or even India. We had to nip nationalism that ran contrary to Americanism in the bud. Nationalism that supported Americanism was fine, of course, as in our later supporting Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and so on, until they violated our instructions and we crushed them. The domino-toppling that we feared after Vietnam, and that we worked to prevent by unleashing unholy combustion on Vietnam, was based on internal nationalist and progressive trends, not on external coercion. As far as externalities, we were the mother of all external pressures and have been ever since, all over the world.
Well, Mr. CIA just laughed at all this and said he didn’t know anyone in government who could come up with, and very few who would even understand, a rationale so subtle and clever. So I said, okay then, what’s your explanation for the U.S. role in subverting nationalist and socialist trends in the tiny economically imperceptible island of Grenada? And he said his explanation was easy. If Grenada became an ally of the Soviet Union instead of the U.S., it might house some Soviet missiles. If that happened, we would have to retarget some of our missiles to take out Grenada in the event of war. I looked at him and wondered to myself, is Mr. CIA trying to make me believe this, or is he tacitly admitting that I am right in what I have been saying?
I said, you seriously want me to believe that we trounced these people and denied them their dignity and their preferred future not to prevent a trend that could seriously undermine U.S. economic and social control internationally, but, instead, because we didn’t want to have to change the programming of two or three missiles to point at Grenada rather than at their current destinations?
Could it be that Mr. CIA’s explanation was really the thinking behind U.S. policy, and that it was only by chance that the choices fit my explanation? Did he believe what he offered? I didn’t think either could be the case. There are people, even highly placed, who believe the lunatic rationales that media offer to explain U.S. policymaking, but not Mr. CIA. On the other hand, Mr. CIA fathered Cynthia Peters, who spent a decade at SEP, making it better than it would otherwise have been, and who has been an activist organizer with extraordinary commitment, talent, and insight ever since. Strange tree.
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.
Getting back to the sixties, looking at all the Washington gatherings and events from on high, you could see a clear progression. At first our gatherings were only massive rallies. Then they were marches with a rally. Then we leapt to acts of civil disobedience that we appended onto the march/rally foundation. And then we leapt to May Day 1971. For May Day we said, let’s forego the rally. Let’s have the civil disobedience only. And let’s make it memorable.
The logic was sound. The powers that be were pursuing the war to prevent the Vietnamese from gaining control over their own country, resources, and labor and utilizing it in ways that weren’t dictated by U.S. corporate interests, but that instead sprung from Vietnamese national concerns. The danger was “the spread of a good example.” If Vietnam could extricate itself from U.S. domination, so could Thailand, Laos, and maybe even India. Vietnam itself mattered marginally. Vietnam as an example mattered immensely.
The way I first grasped the point was to conduct a dreadful thought experiment. I imagined that a meteor hit Vietnam and wiped it off the face of the globe. I realized the geopolitical and economic loss to the United States would have been barely discernable. Returning to the real universe, if by its active and courageous resistance Vietnam removed itself from the international circuits of U.S. capital and took over its own destiny, I realized the demonstration effect would cost a lot. My deduction was that the war was not to prevent “the loss of Vietnam,” but to prevent Vietnam’s extricating itself teaching others that they could extricate themselves too. The war in Indochina sought to teach that if you try to escape us, if you violate us in any way, you will not only fail, you will go backwards, bombed, if necessary, back to the Stone Age. As far as I can tell, the same logic has informed U.S. policy ever since.
As we saw it, from the president on up to the heads of major corporations, U.S. elites were intent on pursuing the war to defend corporate and geopolitical interests. We in the antiwar movement, in contrast, wanted to stop it. We send, say, 200,000 people to the Pentagon to protest. Later we send, say, 400,000 and then more. So what? Why would this matter to DC’s elites?
For me, the answer was that our acts would only cause elites to reconsider Vietnam policy if they raised a specter of cost greater than the costs that elite felt losing the war entailed. Elites had to feel that pursuing the war was going to diminish their interests more than stopping the war would diminish their interests. They had to feel that the disruptions wrought by the movement were more dangerous to their power and wealth than Vietnam going its own way.
In that light, our assembling lots of people in DC over and over, but having the actions and numbers stabilize at some high level, would be irrelevant. Even if we put half a million people outside the White House every month, if the number of people stayed the same every time, the crowd’s threat would diminish to zero because its trajectory would lead nowhere. As long as the numbers of demonstrators weren’t steadily growing and their demeanor wasn’t steadily becoming more militant, the White House could endure the annoyance of having to clean up after us. The powers that be would not have to worry about dissent unless dissent threatened their most basic interests.
The logic of going to Washington first with a rally, then with a march and a rally, then with a rally and civil disobedience, and then with just plain old disruption, was to convey that the movement was getting bigger and stronger and, moreover, that its focus was broadening from just this war to all war, and from war to capitalism. Our escalation said to elites, if you keep on with Vietnam, you may encounter problems at home that are too big to endure. It was the same logic as having demos in DC, and then, later, all over the country. We had to diversify, multiply, and intensify. If we weren’t growing, we weren’t threatening.
When elite individuals changed from advocating the war to opposing it, they would often hold press conferences announcing their decisions. They wouldn’t say, I have discovered that dropping bombs and napalm on illiterate peasants to defend U.S. power is immoral. They wouldn’t say I have discovered that the men from Detroit and Dallas and Des Moines sent to Indochina who come home in coffins or without limbs don’t deserve that fate. They would instead say that our streets are in turmoil. We are losing the next generation. The fabric of society is being torn asunder. I can no longer in good conscience abide the war. In other words, they told us that continuing to pursue the war threatened their profits and power more than it advanced them. So, damn it all, against their inclinations, they had to change sides.
You can judge for yourself what kind of conscience, what kind of personal and moral calculus that choice revealed. But the point for activists was that our demonstrations had to raise social costs beyond what elites would willingly bear. That’s why it made sense to bring increasing numbers of people to each new demonstration. It’s why it made sense to diversify tactics. It’s why it made sense to continually broaden the scope of opposition.
What elites feared sufficiently to surrender to was a movement that began to question their very right to exist. It wasn’t enough to be more angry or more militant but with fewer numbers. It wasn’t enough to have deeper analysis and broader focus, without having more support and militancy. A movement trying to win major gains had to manage all the variables at once.
May Day 1971 was a leap. The movement was going to try to move not just secondary numbers at a big peaceful demonstration to do civil disobedience in DC, it was going to try to bring out only folks committed to civil disobedience, and not just to moderate civil disobedience, but to shutting the city down. The slogan was, “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’re going to stop the government.” The plan was to occupy the streets, block traffic, and halt the city. This was not insurrection, but neither was it peaceful picnic-style dissent.
I remember the organizing to assemble people to go to May Day. My friends and I organized in the Boston area. Others did it in other cities. Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, in particular, went from place to place, across the country, to help.
This is one of those times when I heard Rennie speak. He made me cry, as he recounted Vietnamese history and bravery. He made me cheer, as he got us to shout how we were going to shut down DC and end the war. What he did was fantastically effective agitprop and education, at least for some of us. What he did was also horribly ill-conceived.
The problem was that you can’t judge methods and actions by only short-term results if you have long-term desires. That many who he harangued went to DC was a plus for Rennie’s methodology. But people believed Rennie. Rennie Davis knew we weren’t going to shut down the government. Tom Hayden knew we weren’t going to shut down the government. But their organizing approach was to rile up the audience, and probably themselves too, and excite people with the possibility of shutting down the government. Surely it was worth going to DC, occupying the streets, risking getting beaten and arrested, if it was going to end the war on the spot. It was like revving up for a big game, or for a kamikaze attack. You envision immense success and you go for it. You don’t go for it if you envision losing.
So the day came, and we ran through DC’s streets, pretty much shutting down the city and provoking the biggest mass arrest in U.S. history. But the next day, it was back to business as usual for DC, the government, and the B-52s pummeling the life out of Vietnamese peasants.
May Day’s demonstrators watched TV and got the wind knocked out of them. They felt defeated, even doomed. We had gone to DC. We had shut down the city. But the war raged on. Failure. Many gave up. Not Tom and Rennie. Also, not me and many others who thought in terms of a long-haul struggle. We didn’t make apocalyptic judgments. But the predominant style of organizing often led others who were newer to activism to think in terms of immediate tallies and to crumple rather than continue when the immediate results weren’t optimal.
Whatever anyone thought about May Day, serious thoughts about the war and about strategy needed to be tied to reality. Of course May Day didn’t end the war. Of course the White House opened for business Monday morning. But was the movement stronger, wiser, better organized, and eager to come back for more, or did May Day reduce prospects? Hearing that the war was still raging should not have caused any activist to think we failed. But it did.
Looking back, my guess is that May Day was at best much less successful than it should have been, and at worst counterproductive. What would have made it better was to get everyone there for the same reasons why Tom, Rennie, and many local organizers like myself went to DC—to build a movement. It was wrong to get people there in the expectation that being there would quickly end the war. Actually, Rennie himself did pretty much give up, not too long thereafter. Maybe he succumbed to his own eloquence, distraught that his extravagant promises weren’t met.
Poland No Joke
Being one of the world’s big vampires,
Why don’t you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power.
Lydia Sargent and I went to Poland to see Slawomir Magala at the time that South End Press published his book, Class Struggle in Classless Poland. Ahh, you may be wondering, what’s Poland got to do with a chapter on Washington? What logic can this have? Has the nontemporal approach strayed beyond any plausible motive? Let’s see.
The trip to Poland was eventful in many ways. I will never forget coming around a corner and seeing a shrine in the street, with some flowers, artifacts, and pictures celebrating a famous victim of a nefarious crime, a person that the local people admired and wished to honor. No, it wasn’t Lenin or Stalin. It wasn’t Marx or Trotsky. It wasn’t a Polish freedom fighter from any time or any place. It was instead the main mop-top, John Lennon. The shrine was moving in its simplicity, accurate in its homage, and somehow it made very real to me the interconnectedness of nations, people, and history.
While in Poland, Lydia and I toured a few cities, attended some meetings, met some organizers, and generally got a first-hand account of the unfolding workers’ movements—remember Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarinosc?—and their organizations. What I heard contoured my ensuing understanding of what will be needed to carry off a fully liberating transformation of Poland or the U.S.
In Poland, under the heel of the Soviet Union, a group of young people—probably in part due to the delayed, reflected, percolating impact of the Sixties, including John Lennon’s lyrics and much more—became politicized and deeply aroused. They decided they would try to prod Polish events—not to lead much less to dominate them. The idea was to become a social detonator.
These young people would spread out in Polish society and use street theater, café meetings, underground newspapers, wall posters, and provocative rallies and demonstrations to detonate hope and desire in the populace. They were anti-Leninist and anti-elitist in much the same way as our movements had been at MIT. In fact, I think they were very much a Polish version of the tide of activism in the U.S. that went to the South and onto campuses in the earliest years of the sixties. But the Polish activists were even more aggressive and more productive than we had been, and at any rate had tremendous success.
I don’t remember the Polish name for their project, but their acronym was KOR. And they did their job well. Polish society began to shake from their actions and the ensuing vibrations aroused a gigantic restiveness, and, in particular, a renewed workers’ movement called Solidarity—which was Solidarinosc in Polish. This was the outpouring of dissent and resistance that swept Poland years before the demise of the Soviet Union. It generated strikes and factory occupations all over Poland. KOR agitated for self-management and for participation and the workers in turn sought, both by taking over their factories and shipyards in many parts of the country, not least Gdansk, to run them outside the strictures of the Leninist state. This was the movement Lech Walesa came from and, in time, led.
What Lydia and I saw in Poland was the tension between the truly sincere desires of people in KOR to only detonate a mass movement and then merge into it with no special status, and the countervailing tendency for them to find themselves writing leaflets, giving speeches, undertaking negotiations, and otherwise playing increasingly leading roles until, in the end, the new Polish government was full of earlier KOR members who wound up enacting continued Soviet-style rule in the aftermath of struggles that fell short.
The young KOR activists weren’t just good guys pissed off at capitalism or, in this case, at Soviet-style authoritarianism. They were self-consciously and very explicitly guarding against precisely what finally unfolded. So how did hierarchy arise even in their own ranks and even against their concerted efforts?
For Lydia and I, the Polish experience provided the best evidence for the view that while personal tendencies to elitism certainly play a role in the emergence of new elites, the central problem is instead structural. The workers of Poland were rebelling. Crises were unfolding. Conflict was erupting. Lives and history resonated risk and possibility. In each new exchange there was great pressure to excel. When a leaflet needed writing, activists looked for the person who had the most stylish verbal cadence and most information. When a speech had to be given, it sought the person who could string together the needed words, humor, and drama most confidently. When negotiations had to be undertaken, it followed the person who was most practiced at legal wrangling and fact bending.
The pressure of the moment continually and repeatedly conspired to elevate the highly educated and self-confident members of KOR into ever more prominent positions. Their initial advantages in skills, confidence, and knowledge were enlarged daily as they did the most skill-enlarging, confidence-inducing, and knowledge-increasing tasks while others in the wider movement looked on in appreciation. When a report was needed, ask the KOR person. He could do most quickly. She could do it most eloquently. It would be inefficient not to use him or her.
Over time, everyone grew dependent on a relatively few KOR contributors. KOR members monopolized the slots in the movement that conveyed visibility, notoriety, and the confidence and cadence to dominate outcomes. The monopolizers, just trying to contribute to the struggle, began to dominate the struggle. And try as they might to not succumb to the inducements, they also began to see themselves as more worthy and better than others. They led events. Others followed.
It wasn’t the genetic code of the new leaders at fault. Nor was it their personalities. In the case of KOR, their personal inclinations were about as good as activists can have. If these people’s inner wiring or predispositions were the problem, then there was no solution and likely wouldn’t be any solution in a future situation either. But, in fact, the problem was not in the members of KOR. It was in the lack of institutional dynamics able to ensure participation and self management. And if I had to condemn a problem inside people’s minds, too, then it seemed to me the problem was a confusion about what efficiency was and about what quality outcomes were.
The Polish movement, like others before and after, simply did not have a wide enough or wise enough view of itself. To produce a good leaflet or speech or even negotiation while undercutting the underlying values of the movement was not, in fact, efficient, though everyone thought it was. Efficiency should have meant attaining desired ends without wasting—or destroying—valued assets. Elevating KOR members accomplished desired short-term ends, yes, but it did so at the cost of obstructing and finally obliterating not only self-management and participation in that moment, but also aspirations and prospects for the long run.
This was the lesson of Poland that Lydia and I learned from talking to our hosts there. It doesn’t do to win the wrong goal. It doesn’t do to lose completely, either. So the trick is, how do you undertake worthy and effective practice that can win desired goals without slip-sliding away your guiding values? Good aspirations and commitments are necessary but not sufficient. Imagine KOR operating with a rule that regardless of losses in time or quality of output every speech had to be made by someone who had made no more than three other speeches before, though accompanied and helped by a person with more experience. And likewise, imagine there having been similar rules for writing leaflets and conducting negotiations.
Perhaps this suggestion is simplistic, but what was truly simpleminded was to seek self-management by means that failed to produce self-management. Poland is in this Washington chapter because the lessons of Poland are apt for Washington too. And perhaps I should mention, as well, another insight from the Polish trip. While there, Lydia and I were saddened and astounded to encounter a widespread confusion. If another country was seen as in any way allied to Russia, it was deemed an enemy of the Polish movement. If another country was seen as in any way contrary to Russia, it was deemed to be an ally of the Polish movement.
We had to work hard to dispel the view that the CIA would aid and nurture a Polish workers’ movement into an equitable future. The problem was belief in a familiar mental gymnastic: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” This logic rears up all too often, not least in the U.S. Left. The most recent gyrations include the deductions that since Milosevic and even Hussein and bin Laden are the empire’s enemy, they must be the anti-empire’s friend. It was a lot easier to empathize with the Poles’ confusions of this sort than with those of fellow American leftists.