Satyagraha for 21st-century Socialists

As end-of-empire America lashes out in terror both domestic and foreign, the U.S. Left faces a seemingly unprecedented urgency. With the fate of the planet at stake, it is harder than ever to sit still amid abstract debates about the meanings of nonviolence and violence; strategy and tactics; socialism, democracy, and revolution. How then, to take a long view of history without missing the needs of the moment?

For this organizer-academic who cut his teeth in the early 1980s, the need is clear for relevant dialogues on 21st century dialectics —and careful use of the words we choose.

Defining Terms

Nonviolence (a term some have called “a word seeking to describe something by saying what it is not”) is used in a variety of ways. For some, nonviolence is strategic and revolutionary, for others principled and philosophical; it can be a way of life or a mere tactic. For most practitioners, it is a tantalizing combination of the above. And for far too many, it connotes passivity and an inability to move beyond reformism, at least on the mass level.

Violence, as we know too well, goes far beyond war to include domestic violence, random street crime, repression, and poverty—responsible for more death than most other forms combined. Despite the ferocity of structural violence, however, many even on the Left seem to connote violence with images of angry “mobs” of young men with guns.

Armed struggle may be seen by some as the only method of revolution—while there are few critiques of such leftist militarism. Where is the necessary dialectical analysis of revolutionary nonviolence and the mildly tactical armed actions? Or about the “diversity of tactics” included in the antifa movement’s “black bloc” events? Trying for some, I wrote about a very small demonstration held a few years ago in the Bronx, NY:

Though far to the north of that now-historic original site of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a contingent of OWS folks, especially associated with the People of Color caucus, the Anti-Racist Allies group and working with the Stop “Stop and Frisk” campaign (targeting abusive and brutalizing cops), were a key part of this mobilization. At the time, the New York Police Department was stopping and frisking almost 2,000 black and Latino young people on the off chance that they might have some criminal intent. So many pointless encounters led to increased numbers of unarmed young people being shot by the police.

After the police-involved death of Ramarley Graham, demonstrators marched around the precinct and the neighborhood—not looking to be antagonistic, but neither were they subdued: They chanted “NYPD … Guilty!” and “F**K the Police.”

Some complained that the language was too rough, as they feared that it could escalate the anger. The mobilization organizers encouraged community members to speak out about what they experienced. One after another young person, mother, local business owner, or teacher testified to the terror of “stop and frisk” and NYPD terror. One of the “Stop and Frisk” organizers noticed an officer who began to cry as she heard the barrage of community fury. The organizer, who had seen this officer at previous demonstrations, approached her: “Do you know the writings of James Baldwin?” he asked.

She did. She knew that Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time spoke not only of the frustrations of African Americans throughout U.S. history but also referenced the biblical reference, often used in spirituals: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water but the fire next time.” If we do not set right the wrongs of today, and properly vent and process the feelings of the moment, we will pay dearly in the future when tragedy befalls us again. The officer and the organizer didn’t have a wonderful epiphany or come to some great unity, but they did share a moment in the midst of the madness.

I don’t tell this story here to suggest that the police are not part of the massive repression of people of color or that we should always be yelling curses at them or other “opponents.” The Trump debacle has led to far too many calls for muted living-room “conversations” with right-wing populist neighbors, shorn of the passions of righteous indignation against the evils of our times. It’s about the simultaneous leveraging of rage and communication, about the forging of nonviolent direct action spaces as complex as are our times.

Focusing Energy for Change

With all the shouting and anger, cursing and grief, testifying and dialogue, militancy and uncertainty, these complexities are the epitome of what nonviolence has got to look like if it is to have any relevance in the years ahead.

If we are to draw any lessons from Occupy, the Movement for Black Lives, the Bernie campaigns, the new Poor People’s Campaign, and other U.S.-based initiatives of the past decade, it is that the energy for such change is in the air. The passion is there, as is the boldness to go out and do something. The problem is that society here is structured, with people carefully culturally and repressively contained, such that building actual movements is more difficult than ever.

Swiss political economist Christian Marazzi put together in five short chapters an interpretation of the global crisis that doesn’t view the current moment as a shocking response to failures in the “system.” It’s called The Violence of Financial Capitalism and describes the intensified stratification between rich and poor as a continuation of the process of capital accumulation that requires the violence of re-colonization, increased inequality, and a world of poverty. The increased (and for some genocidal) cutting of basic needs and services from the people who produce most of what we use in the world is not a temporary thing. It is not, as some economists argue, a “correction” to ensure future widespread prosperity; it is a permanent way of life designed by the ruling class in late-stage capitalism.

Adhering to (or debating about) old-school false dichotomies like the nonviolence-violence debate is as useless as trying to solve the arguments of our grandparents, as ridiculous as spending time trying to decide whether Gandhi was a saint.

Perhaps the best assessment comes from Native American author-activist Margo Tamez (Lipan Apache). Tamez reminds us that border walls infringing on people’s land are hardly a Trump invention, and that, “Our allies have to be better-trained and well chosen.” We must figure out how to come together across generations, racial/ethnic divides, genders and sexualities and faiths. Listening to and respecting elders, especially from African-heritage peoples as well as from Indigenous, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Latinx peoples, means listening to and working to free the still-languishing political prisoners of past decades. Out of these passions, this love for the people, the merging of Martin and Malcolm and Ella and Queen Mother Moore must come a revolutionary nonviolence that will rock the world.

Respecting and representing the new generations from these same communities means, among many other things, working for reparations and resistance before reconciliation, for truth-telling first … before the peace and harmony sharing of safe space.

These are not just demands and needs to be called out for the government or the powerful: These are power dynamics and consciousness that must permeate all that we do. We must understand that oppression anywhere breeds inequality everywhere. It also breeds ineffectiveness, whether in society as a whole or in grassroots social change groups.

We can and must turn our money and our bodies away from the creators and promoters of war— from the banks and taxes and armies, from their corporate owners and police forces. We can and must choose constructive programs that will rebuild our broken communities. Together, we can create beloved communities, where revolutionary nonviolence is no blast from the past but our current work, with definitions and practices for a new day being born.