Self-Determination in the 21st Century

The early years of my political activism, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, happened to coincide with a period of time when, throughout the world, oppressed nations were rising up and successfully overthrowing colonial or neo-colonial regimes, in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Nicaragua and elsewhere. In the United States the African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Native American movements were the cutting edge of opposition to injustice and oppression. All of these history-making efforts had a deep impact upon me and many other young whites, in the most positive of ways.

Perhaps the most positive was our willingness to take seriously the issue of national self-determination, to appreciate the need for black, brown, red and yellow people to have the power to decide for themselves the appropriate strategies and tactics in their struggles for justice and freedom for their peoples. At the same time we needed to work to build multi-cultural connections and alliances against the enemy, the global capitalist system, we all had in common.

I continue to believe in these fundamental political principles. Those of us who are of European descent need to deal with the racism we have been taught in this culture which leads us to think and act as if we are the ones who’ve got all the answers, as if we must be in leadership of progressive movements if they are to have any hope of success. We must appreciate and respect the leadership that has been and will continue to be given by people of color as they make their best efforts to liberate their communities, their peoples, and all people.

But I have learned some things in the many years that I have been about this work of organizing for social change. One of them is that I can’t work with every group or groups within an oppressed community/nation which says it is about freedom and justice. I need to make distinctions.

Within the Black community, for example, there are generally progressive organizations which, however, are weak when it comes to dealing with issues like sexism, heterosexism and/or internal democracy. There are others which tend to be more middle-class or professional dominated, even if they are made up of people who experience racism on a regular basis. And there are groups whose strategies and tactics for social change are much too moderate, too mild or, for that matter, too “super-militant” or even violent, to ever lead to the kinds of changes I believe are necessary.

This doesn’t mean that I should publicly attack these groups. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work with them. It definitely doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t treat them with respect in a consciously non-racist way. But if these are the only groups that I know, what I need to be doing is searching out, finding and working with those groups and people whose political views, ways of functioning and strategic approaches are much more consistent with my own.

It seems to me that in this 21st century, globally-interconnected, corporate world, all of us, of whatever culture and nationality, need to be about this process, as one important part of what we are doing to build up the strength to eventually win.

The fact is that there are some lessons relevant to this needed process that should be drawn from the experience of national liberation movements around the world and in this country over the past 40 or so years. To my way of thinking there are two main, interconnected lessons:

1) A commitment to national liberation must be fundamentally intertwined with a commitment to the liberation of workers and all low-income people. Too many leaders downplayed, at best, the interests of the poor after “liberation,” choosing instead to mimic the behavior, values and economic approaches of the former colonial rulers.

2) The pressures upon popular leaders after the taking of power, even those who genuinely want to bring about change that benefits the vast majority, are very great, particularly the overt pressure from the world’s corporate rulers to toe the line. The only chance to withstand these pressures is a deeply-rooted, internally democratic, politically principled yet tactically flexible popular movement and organizations whose first allegiances are to grassroots empowerment, justice and democracy.

All of this is very easy to write about, easy to say, yet difficult to do. We are all imperfect human beings, influenced if not molded by a violent, sick culture. The temptation to give in, to accept partial solutions, to not give the best of ourselves, to not struggle against known problems standing in the way of what we believe in—these are all temptations I know very well. I continue to struggle with them on a regular basis.

We must hold out the vision, and we must strive for it. That way lies the truth that liberates.