Thursday, November 6, 2008

Know Your Social History

This is not a perspectives document in which I am advocating we all degenerate into armchair bookishness. But as a former student activist with a hectic schedule, who has learned to slow down a bit and approach problems at a more manageable, and informed pace, I am concerned about what other leftists are reading; and what frame of reference they have for understanding their own activity. I think most socialists, anarchists, and other radicals in the United States have a general sympathy and an interest for the bodies of literature, memoirs, non-fiction, and research generally known as ‘social history’. But I do not think that most such people always have a theoretical framework to understand why taking the time to learn it, especially as it applies to the specific locality in which one is operating, is so important. This document attempts to outline such a framework, and it sets out to make the case that what you know about your own historical record is at least if not more important- in the long term- than what you know about any specific ideology you may be affiliated with.

There are people who read constantly, and for whom ideas themselves are convincing enough to motivate them to take some kind of action, even if the experience upon which the logic of such an action is based has not been part of their own life[1]. Then there are those for whom only one book is enough to reveal all the truths worth learning, and of course some folks never read, some of whom by their own accord "don't need to." Luckily, most tend to fall somewhere in between…

But just because you can't read (or write) as fast or as well as you would like, or don't have as much time to, does not mean you are not intelligent, and do not have interesting stories, knowledge and experience that others can benefit from learning about. That might be considered the motivational bedrock of social history, which seeks to develop a real, people’s history. Generally this is written by people who wish to bring back to life the activism and the passion that is so often a part of what human beings are and which sadly is just as often written out of official histories (wherein the great mass is generally portrayed as the passive recipient and follower of whatever ideas, policies, and events that others who are smarter, richer, or more powerful than them invent).

Social History breaks down the myths that books just exist as some kind of entertainment for people who read a lot anyway, or that there's some kind of vulgar mathematical formula between how many books you've read and how valuable your thoughts are (at this point you may recall that George Bush has a degree from Yale). The world certainly has more than enough "well educated idiots" out there making all the wrong decisions. What diplomas, and all other trappings of educational officialdom conceal is that how much you read is not nearly as important as what you read; and least of all, who is doing the reading in the first place, or even what your life inspires you to do with what knowledge you have.

Social History is a liberating phenomena in that it does practically and through literature, although in a limited way, what adult education and various revolutionary movements have attempted to do with "throwing open the doors" of the universities. It does this not simply in the sense that, thanks to a few autobiographies and research grants, high school and college students have more interesting course material... Social history is a methodological approach to education which goes both ways. You do not need a degree to participate in, write, or to learn history. Neither do you need to be enrolled in any particular institution to self-educate, or to study something alongside others.

Good historical writing gives us inspiration- by reading about people like ourselves, who may have been faced with similar problems, and who have approached them with varying success in ways we might consider. There are many practical lessons we can draw and apply in obvious ways, and perhaps even more importantly there is a sense of pride and self confidence that one only gets from knowing one's self, one's own people, and one's own history.

Myths of Great Men

Perhaps the greatest service I feel rendered by this body of work are the blows it deals against the myths of "great men"- myths that lord over and tyrannize us all.

Great men (and women!) are of course great. But time, hype, and writers looking to sell books and articles focusing on iconic celebrity tend to elevate their stature to super-human proportions. Take Martin Luther King Jr. for example. Certainly a great activist, he genuinely sought to empower ordinary people to develop skills and form organizations that would enable them to control more of their own lives. Yet the idea of who he was, so many years later, appears impossible to live up to. No one, least of all probably a young Martin Luther King Jr. himself, would ever have stood up one day and say, "I'm going to become Martin Luther King Jr., articulate, dedicated, leader-martyr of the civil rights movement, with a street named after me in every moderate to large sized city in America."

Far more likely people these days will mourn the absence of a "great leader" like King to lead them out of darkness. "If only we had another Martin Luther King!" is a far more likely refrain, coupled perhaps with, "Oh man... I can't do that..."

Even left wing histories can play into these myths, at times focusing too much on one or two great leaders or thinkers. Tony Cliff, for example, did this with Lenin and Trotsky. His biographies are very useful, give you a lot of information about the lives and ideas of those two people, and they do a good job of defending them against their detractors. But reading them without a broader sense of the Russian Revolutionary movement can be ultimately disempowering, because the reader-activist can feel rather inadequate trying to measure up, in these "ordinary" times, to the legacy of those who through chance as well as their own merit came to lead the greatest upsurge of working class struggle in world history.

The Cliff biographies should definitely be read, but read them with Deutscher, Serge, and the memoirs of whatever activists of the period you can get your hands on. Almost as exciting and equally valuable are new research focused works, such as Kevin Murphy's recent Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, which takes advantage of archives that have not previously been accessible to western historians to undertake a systematic study of, "not a monolithic working class of revolutionary heroes or atomized victims, but a politically and ideologically diverse and contradictory group [with] daily struggles and internal battles." [2]

The millions of ordinary people who are not "swept up in events", but who make conscious decisions, here and there, to commit themselves to some form of day to day activism are the people who make a revolution possible. Their contributions may be strictly local, and perhaps away from the main conflagrations. Perhaps they are episodic, or they act as individuals without a group to publicize their struggle. Their cases may not have been a cause celebre, or if they were there may be no one left alive who still remembers what an impact it had on them. They may have been... like you and me?

The names and faces that come alive in good writing, when it's honest and done right, are not idealized and 100% heroic, as some character in a film. They are, like all of us, ridden with doubts, fears, vices, and shortcomings. They are human. Take for instance one passing moment out of The Narrative of the Life of Hosea Hudson.... Hudson, an African-American steelworker joined the Communist Party (operating underground) in Alabama in the early 1930s. He had been an activist for a little while but had felt let down by a few people and was definitely frightened by the intensity of official repression. He and a friend of his are not sure whether or not they want to continue to be Communist activists, given all the risks. He meets with this friend by a bridge and they discuss their doubts... at the end of their conversation they decide to give it another shot. In the course of the next several years, they went on to pioneer efforts to organize blacks to vote, successfully lead a protracted legal fight against the framing and persecution of the "Scottsboro Boys" , and helped to unionize thousands of miners, steelworkers, and sharecroppers.[3]

Yet even then it was not all up and away. Shortly after World War II Hudson found himself red-baited out of a union local that he had helped to organize, and years after the famous Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin's crimes he continued to praise Stalin and credit him personally with the CP's turn to prioritize the fight against racism in the late 1920s. Hudson eventually wound up in New York, a lifelong CP member, campaigning for the first black woman representative (on the Democratic Party ticket) of a local electoral district.

A reader of his story is at times taken in with sympathy and identification. At others one can now from a well-informed perspective recoil at what candidly were the political pitfalls of membership in a Western, Stalinist political party. Hudson was a local leader, but in the broader scheme of things he was one radical activist among thousands. He was right on some things and wrong on others. But if you had lived then, how much different could you really have been sure your own political life would have been?

Of course you'll never know, and that's not really the point. But if you're able to take away from that a bit of appreciation for the fact that some people you will be working with today might be pulled by different pressures into different political directions; may harbor "mixed" political consciousness; and might not even be as well informed about world events as they think they are; you'll have moved that much closer to becoming an attentive, patient activist, which in my opinion is a far more useful thing that someone who sees everything- people included- in only black or white.

Each of us who goes on to do some kind of good, or even great activism in their lives, would never get there without plenty of moments like Hudson's moments of doubt, which are generally totally absent from the "Great Men" myths of fearless leaders. Yet they are crucial to understand. Without them we have little frame of reference save the default ideas, whether hostile or fawning, that "activists and leaders are born with all their ideas fully formed in their heads and proceed mechanically to implement them with no other interests or personal lives at all."

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is hard for a lot of us today to understand, because so many of its leaders and images have been tokenized, and so many of the movers and shakers have been forgotten by the wayside. Reading most mainstream accounts, perhaps having seen a documentary on TV or talked about it in class during black history month; you might have the impression that the Civil Rights Movement was all run by professionals who know what they're doing- sort of like we're supposed to think things are being run today. You might have thought Martin Luther King, Jr. had got a PHD in "NGO Management", and had it all planned out by 1955, rather than having attended a seminary and then gone to preach at a church in Montgomery not expecting but later playing a leading role in the boycott.

Or one of the worst myths, and perhaps the hardest to die, that Rosa Parks was (just) a tired Old Seamstress...

If you've heard about the Freedom rides in 1964, you might not have heard about the nameless few who years before tried similar tactics, with mixed and less well publicized results. You might have heard about Brown vs. Board of Education, but you probably didn't hear about the difficult stand against local prejudice and in favor of fairness and principle that a Federal Judge in Charleston, SC took in his ruling in favor of one of the plaintiffs in a case that led to Brown. If you're lucky you might have heard that Rosa Parks had been an activist before she refused to give up her seat, but you probably didn't hear about the Highlander Folk School, the "Communist" controversy in which it, Parks, and King were involved, or the role it played pioneering local literacy classes to challenge voting restrictions on the islands of South Carolina- a model that was then replicated across the South. You might have heard that Martin was for non-violence and Malcolm believed in armed self defense... but what about the Deacons for Defense? Or how many SNCC workers actually carried pistols across those lonely Southern highways? Could it be the reality was a lot more complicated, and nuanced, that we're casually taught?

Taking in a whole period such as those years, you begin to appreciate the highs as well as the lows, the confusion and demoralization as well as the clarity. Without that understanding all you get are a few dates to memorize, with bigger and bigger demos, until eventually, we're told segregation was ended. It would thus appear that social movements, like cicadas or some kind of dormant seed, just come and go in an automatic, cyclical fashion, perhaps sort of like the Flu.

* * *

Understanding social history means coming to grips with a totality. It's not to understand the history of any one ideological or personal lineage, any succession of presidents, industrial innovations, political parties, or cultural manifestations. It's about learning to understand the integration of ideas and people in a changing world, and the different responses to adversity and prosperity that people have at times taken up. A social history of, say, working class response to the economic depression of the 1890s would have to include an understanding of xenophobia and the rise of Jim crow just as it would be able to understand the rise and fall of the People's Party. Racism and class struggle are of course not equally legitimate nor useful responses to injustice amid the tightening of belts... but they are pulls in different directions that generations past and present have experienced. Understanding that people could hold contradictory ideas, or be pulled in different directions, and at times, even fail in their aims, is crucial to be able to develop realistic expectations.

The co-option and disorganization of the People’s Party was demoralizing to many who had been part of it. Some, such as the fiery Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia, abandoned his earlier radicalism and shifted rather hard to the right. Others, perhaps drawing better lessons out of their experience, when on to build important radical organizations, such as the Socialist Party or the IWW, in the years that followed.

The August Spies quote about "A Subterranean Fire" that cannot be stamped out is a useful starting point. But when you not only intuit, but really know the history of that fire, in a local and in a personal context, you become a stronger person. McCarthyism had its heyday 50 years ago.... but still socialist ideas are rather marginalized in the United States. The impressions that they are somehow "foreign" or "inapplicable" to this country are still held by many, though increasingly this does seem to be on the wane. Yet the dichotomy is there, and socialists in the United States are still quite often obliged to "prove" their "authenticity", and their right to participate in coalitions as equal members.

It's my opinion after some years of mulling over that question that the most common affect of this onus is to pressure radicals to self-censor and hold back what might be quite useful contributions. The "Red Fear", as Hosea Hudson referred to it, seems at least today to be stronger in the minds of actual, self-conscious socialists than it is in the minds of radicalizing allies, coalition partners, and the fellow workers and students they find themselves working alongside. Knowing your past, and the tested, historical relevance and value of your ideas, won't change that dynamic. But it will take the onus off you, and free your mind up to focus on more practical matters.

A broad understanding of one's own social history is one of the most useful educational initiatives anyone- activist or not- can undertake. If you live in the hills of North Georgia, or the slums of New York, the forests of East Texas, the rustbelt steel towns of the Midwest, the scattered cities of the Rockies, or really, anywhere… there is a radical history beneath your feet of people like you with ideas like yours who took their shot at putting them into practice years before.

Socialists talk, and for the right reasons, a good deal about not "re-inventing the wheel". But the idea of preserving and extending "the historical memory of the working class" isn't just accomplished by you signing a card or being able to recite a certain theory. It's about an honest effort, both collaborative and personal, to understand yourself.

Read, write, and live your social history. America needs new folk heroes.

[1] Such people are quite useful, and often form the backbone of social movements, keeping things together when the chips are down and a short term payoff seems unlikely. But they are generally a minority. More interesting things happen when their thoughts and actions are integrated into the rest of society.

[2] Murphy, Kevin. Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory. Haymarket Books, Chicago. 2007. Quote from back cover's abridged review by Donald Fitzer.

[3] The "Scottsboro Boys" were nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women while riding a train in northern Alabama. All were eventually acquitted, though due to a controversial, last minute legal deal, several were not released from prison for many years. Dan T Carter's book on the subject is perhaps the most accurate and enjoyable to read.

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