Christopher Niles and Racism

Apsken at Apsken at
Fri Dec 4 08:03:07 PST 1998

Niles wrote, after an odd defense that his broadside libel of activists was slyly qualified as a "quick morning ramble" and that he had confessed in advance to having "cut a few corners here": "Here's a silly request: Can we not have infantile exchanges based on either selective readings or willful misreadings of people's ideas? I mean, like, please??"

This is offensive. Toss a bomb, then say you don't really mean it. Certainly it is an "infantile" thing to do, though I don't think that's what you meant.

"Activism is about revolution? Do you really believe that most--I say most, Ken--activists (not a very precise term, it must be emphasized) are aiming for revolution and not reform? I'd really like to know which activist you're talking about. Sure, I've met a few in my times but they sure as hell ain't no majority."

This is simply corrupt, and continues the original provocation. (See my other postings for exemplary names.) Revolution is not created by an act of will. It is created when the exploited class and oppressed masses can no longer continue living in the same way, AND when the ruling class can no longer rule in the same way. BOTH of those conditions are necessary preconditions for social revolution. That "final conflict" is resolved either by the reconstitution of society anew or by the common ruin of the contending classes. So to demand that activists either be "about revolution" in every breath, or else to treat them as dirt, indicates your own lack of seriousness. People struggle to better their conditions of life. When they do so in common cause with others similarly situated, and in solidarity with those who suffer equal or greater exploitation and oppression, the struggle merits support. These struggles have revolutionary content because they challenge the otherwise normal competition among the workers which Marx called the secret of bourgeois rule. Activists are the people who take on the tasks of intervening in such struggles with whatever personal and material resources they can bring to bear to enhance the prospect of victory. To condemn that activity is barbaric. Naturally others are involved for alien purposes, such as liberals building careers, but those people are not the subject of our LBO exchange.

"Do you mean to tell me Ken . . . , [etc., about boring meetings and eyes glazing over]?" Yes I mean it; that is a libel on the movement. Such boring and wasteful discussions are conducted not by activists, but by those who use that activity, like Internet e-list broadsides, as a substitute for meaningful action and engagement.

"Overgeneralize about my generalizations if you must but the Freedom movement and its participants were my primary inspiration and teachers."

I'd say you must have been a slow learner, if those were the lessons you took to heart. As a teenager, I was convinced of Marxism, and involved in peace (anti-bomb), anti-imperialist (solidarity with Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Algeria, and Kenya against the U.S., France, and Britain), and civil rights (solidarity with Montgomery, open occupancy, school desegregation, youth march organizing) activity. But at age 17, when I attended the Atlanta SNCC conference in October of 1960, it changed my life and my concept of duty. In every subsequent political involvement -- Vietnam, African liberation, Central America, U.S. workers, feminism, gay liberation, and so forth -- the context and leadership have been forced onto the public political agenda by today's manifestation of that same movement, and in many instances, by some of the very same people (although some of the best have died, others have sold out, and among the survivors are enough debates to satisfy any armchair Marxist -- though none of us share the gloom-and-doom outlook for the left that seems fashionable here and in The Nation).

"Again, my statement was an obvious generalization which you chose to read as a detailed dissertation. Hey, how many people in those poor communities and those industrial plants know that they are being organized toward a 'visionary socialist future?' "

Again, it was not a legitimate generalization, but a scurrilous attack. Yes, people who participate in those organizing efforts, a minority in any situation, are quite well aware of the organizers' political outlook (usually, in Mississippi at least, they could read about it in the newspapers or see it on television, because the rulers' media was always eager to "expose" and condemn us) -- but until that vision comes closer into view as a probable outcome of struggle, ordinary folks tend to regard the organizers as well- meaning but impractical utopians, though respecting their commitment and esteeming their immediate work.

"Hey, Ken, are you prepared to tell your people that reverse-racism is real?"

No, but they are well aware that some Black demagogues are defenders of white racism. I think you need to read your own words more carefully, preferably before you hurl them at others.

"Noel is not at Harvard. That said, Noel, I am proud to say, is a friend and a comrade and one of the few 'white' men I know who is committed to exposing the whiteness of the left."

Noel's book and all the promotional writeups about him describe him as a "Lecturer at Harvard." I guess he hasn't had time to update his vita since he became a celebrity, nor did he mention a job change when he called me for information a few months ago. Once upon a time, Noel did indeed pose a political alternative to the whiteness of much of the left, which is why we spent 20 years working together and more than 10 in the same organization. But today his role is simply that of clever cynic, which is why I likened your post to Noel's politics, not knowing of an actual connection. Noel's line that Alex Cockburn quoted approvingly is a perfect example: citing the destructive consequence of public education on young Blacks as an excuse for avoiding participation in anti-Klan activity, as though anyone other than Noel regards those concerns as counterposed. (It may be worse than that. Cockburn used Noel's line as a club to beat Lenny Zeskind, who also spent 15 years in the same organization with Noel. If Noel approved Cockburn's use of his words, he too is a demagogue.)

"Suffice it to say for the moment that I am in the process of rethinking a lot of my presumptions about organizing and that I do not think that my poltical work to date has been as intellectually or strategically precise as it could or needs to be."

Good. One would expect such introspection to evoke a humbler and more respectful view of what others have done and are doing, rather than a wholesale attack. Ignorance and uncertainty are not the best platform from which to launch political critiques of others.

"Can you not see that the "left" is radically balkanized on questions of goal and praxis?"

See my response to Alex L. on activism. The short answer is that activists tend to be united in and by struggle even as their parties are ideologically at war. I would guess that even Louis Proyect manages comradely involvement in actual organizing, assuming he finds time away from his library and Web site to join in.

Ken Lawrence

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