Posted on my office wall and carried in my wallet are several quotes that I periodically read and think about. One of them is from C.L.R. James in his masterful book on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: “Political leadership is a matter of program, strategy and tactics, and not the color of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.”
These ideas challenge me.
I deeply believe, based on my reading of history and personal experience, that for those of us serious about fundamental social transformation in the United States, we must uphold and work for leadership from people of color as an essential aspect of our collective strategy for liberation. I believe it is critical that working-class people, particularly working-class women, people of color and those from the low/moderate-income sector of that very large social group, are genuinely supported in their efforts to give leadership and actively encouraged to become leaders. Because of the reality of their lives, they have important insights which can increase the chances that our movement is not derailed or deflected from its mission.
I also believe that it is right to give respect to those who have been in the struggle for many decades, understanding that there is a difference between respect and uncritical hero worship.
On the surface, these beliefs of mine could be seen as contradictory to James’ point about “program, strategy and tactics” being most essential when it comes to leadership of a movement for change. As I have thought about it over the years, however, and as I have interacted with a broad diversity of people of many colors, backgrounds and years of experience, I have come to realize the soundness of this point.
There’s a very current example: the struggle for control of the Pacifica radio network.
There are many complexities to this struggle, which has been going on for years, but it is clear that at its root it is quite literally a “class struggle.” On one side are those who want Pacifica to continue as an organization committed to “the grass roots,” to working-class people, people of color, independent progressives, fundamental social transformation. On the other side are those who have been sanitizing Pacifica’s message, draining it of its radical edge, purging those who rock the boat too much, attempting to “mainstream” what goes out over the Pacifica airwaves.
On this “don’t rock the boat” side are people of color and movement veterans, people whose “color,” “oneness of origin with their people,”
or past “services” to the movement would, one would think, put them in a different place. Their program is moderate, middle-class progressivism; their strategy is to claim that Pacifica needs to attract a larger audience, be more “mainstream;” their tactics are pretty much anything goes, with issues like honesty, democratic process or basic fairness being looked upon as silly, naive, or signs of weakness.
Unfortunately, this type of program, strategy and tactics are not new on the political Left in the United States. Far too many of our organizations have been or are led by people who reflect their class/gender/race, who come from or strive for lives of privilege, and who resist efforts to build democratic, accountable and respectful political processes.
The Pacifica struggle is an example par excellance of the need for a cultural revolution on the Left. Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is one of those who, 75 years ago, saw this need. He called for “a new set of standards, a new psychology, new ways of feeling, thinking and living that must be specific to the working class. . . a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality.”
This is similar to the call by Victoria Gray-Adams at a Progressive Dialogue meeting in D.C. six months ago for us to create a “new way of being.”
Can we do it? Are we doing it? I think we are. We have a long way to go, but the fact that there is a strong and growing, principled, multi-racial, grass-roots oriented opposition to the Pacifica misleaders is one example. The movements among young people of all colors and nationalities, the recognition among many of them that democracy and mutual respect must be central to how they go about their political work, is another. And there are other examples.
There is another saying on my wall and in my wallet, an Ojibway prayer.
It eloquently articulates what we must be about on a personal level, as a movement, if we are to remain true to a program, strategy and tactics that are truly about human liberation for all:
Look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
Who are divided
And we are the ones
Who must come back together
To walk the Sacred Way.
Teach us love, compassion,
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.”