It is hardly likely that twentieth-century man is called upon to discover truth that has never been discovered before.
—E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Outside my home, somewhere in the cedar trees, summer insects are piping away, with no idea of whether they are the first, the billionth, or the last to do what they are doing. Unlike them, I worry about my place in the progression of time. A baby boomer, a modern man, someone living in a time of global crisis — I not only see myself in time, but I sometimes view myself as being at a privileged position — which is at the summit and culmination of history.

Having a sense of time and place is one of the interesting things about being human. But our awareness becomes a problem when we start to believe that our particular moment is the most important moment, that our insights are the best of all time so far, that our generation stands on a mountaintop soaring above history’s hills and valleys. And I think this is especially a problem — even a trap — for those of us who are working for social justice.

I think that the idea that insights, problems, and programs are “new” is driven largely by those — mainstream politicians, or corporate brand marketers, or discoverers — who feel a need to claim that they are pioneers of a brave new world. Then, of course, there are academics and inventors and funders and folks applying for grants — people who are competing for time-limited resources. Throughout the twentieth century, the worlds of music and art have also been tangled up with time-based competition, as artists get praised and rewarded for being “contemporary” or “modern.” In each case, we are urged to forget all the losers in the past, and simply glory in the wonderfulness of the present, where someone finally did it right. Whatever “it” is.

In reality, most of what we know, do, smell and think has been with us for a while. Some of our ancestors were as smart and sophisticated as anyone is now, and we are pretty much in their footsteps on a long march, much of which keeps coming around to the same places.  The accomplishments of those who lived thirty or even ninety years ago are little different than the accomplishments of this generation.

The more things change …

At the age of fifty-three, I’ve seen more than a few things cycle around and become trendy in activist circles again. Recently, I came across two books that reminded me of this. One of them is Neighborhood Centers Today: Action Programs for a Rapidly Changing World, written by Arthur Hillman and published in 1960, when I was a child. One article in the book talks about “planning for inclusiveness.” It emphasizes that activists shouldn’t follow a “melting pot” approach, but should recognize that diversity among groups is real and valuable. Not only the sentiments, but the actual phrases, are those we hear every day from folks who think they are way up to date. Another article chronicles a process of “leadership development” in neighborhoods. Another talks about ways of dealing with aging. A lot of the material could very easily be recycled for social workers, organizers, and researchers writing today.

The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills, was first published in 1956. When I was a young radical, this was a book that all the older radicals, the twenty-five- and twenty-six-year-olds, had on their shelves. And like Neighborhood Centers Today, it anticipates some of the “modern” wisdom of our day. See if these words don’t give you a shiver of familiarity: “a small group of political primitives … have exploited the new American jitters, emptied domestic politics of rational content, and decisively lowered the level of public sensibility.” Or how about this: “The elite of corporation, army, and state have benefited politically and economically and militarily by the antics of the petty right, who have become, often unwittingly, their political shocktroops.”

Doesn’t this pretty much describe where we are in 2003?

Obviously, some progress has been made over the past several decades. There is no mention of LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered) issues in either of the books I mentioned, let alone any sense of an LGBT movement, though it certainly had begun back then. Apartheid in housing was still legal in the United States in 1960, instead of just an informal reality as it is today. And I’ve heard rumors that there have been some changes in communications technology since 1956.

But we progressives have also lost ground in a lot of areas. Income inequality has grown. The labor movement has become weaker. Fundamentalist and media-based churches have grown at the expense of more tolerant, congregation-based, and progressive mainstream churches. The United States is a more frightening military power than it has ever been.

Overall, the basic facts have not changed. Some people seize every opportunity to exploit others, and defend every vestige of privilege and dominance over other people that they can get away with. Other people give their lives, or many years of their lives, for justice. And most of us just live our lives, trying to do the right thing to the extent that we can cut through the fog of media messages.

In other words, in 1956 as in 2003, we are pretty much the same kind of people playing out the same drama. That doesn’t mean the drama is somehow bogus or unimportant, or some kind of cruel joke. It means that the social struggle is part of life. Breathing is also a repetitive process. So is housework. A lot of tasks that are vital to our very existence are never completed, never fundamentally resolved in one unique moment. There is no Mount Everest of social justice waiting for us to climb it and plant a flag once and for all.

Nevertheless, there continue to be people who look down on the rest of us for following an approach from the eighties, or the sixties, or the thirties. They don’t know that most of what we do has been done before — and they don’t learn from that experience. They have a notion in their heads that the present historical moment is unique. And they believe, with all earnestness, that they are the ones with the solutions for society’s problems, that they alone have the smart ideas that really will work — unlike all those annoying, lame efforts in the past. Usually, the new “something” they are going to do is a way to win without organizing and talking to people — or a way to avoid taking the risk of going to jail or being targeted for violence. Then, of course, there are the folks who are going to be more militant than anyone ever was before, or who are going to have a more brilliant analysis than anyone ever did before.

It’s lonely at the top

I don’t mean to merely be a tendentious lecturer and wet blanket. There are some big-time benefits to realizing we are not at the summit of time. For one thing, it gives us a lot more comrades in our struggle, and a lot bigger sense of what is possible.

We no longer have to travel to connect to the great social movements of the past. Wherever we live, we already live on ground hallowed by struggle. For example, I just moved to a mostly white, rural county in Virginia that goes Republican in every election. Why I did that is a long story. But it definitely helps that John Kagi grew up several miles from here. A few miles farther away is Harper’s Ferry, where Kagi fought with the radical abolitionist John Brown against slavery. The longer I live here, the more I’m inspired by the local history: the farmers who organized, the unions that struggled, the indigenous people who resisted.

Of course, many of these stories from the past are not happy ones. It is unpleasant to be reminded that some of our struggles will also fail, that some of us will also suffer unjustly. But at least we know we are not alone. This is important, because the exploiters often do a good job of embarrassing us activists into feeling that we are strange — overly sensitive, “politically correct,” obsessive. But history tells us that in every hierarchical human society there are people who rise up for justice. Sometimes, they even win.

It’s also important to remember that whatever we activists are trying to do, someone has done it — or something a lot like it — before, under way tougher conditions. That doesn’t guarantee our success, but it does mean that we can succeed if things go right.

These days, I often think of the abolitionists who fought slavery in the early 1800s. They lived through a time when it looked like slavery would be swept away in the egalitarian fervor of the American Revolution. That didn’t happen. The system of slavery, in fact, got stronger: Churches that had been racially integrated in the late 1700s became rigidly segregated; laws were passed preventing slaves from learning how to read and requiring them to travel with passes. But even in these bleak times, activists struggled valiantly. Gabriel Prosser still organized a rebellion in Richmond. Benjamin Lundy still traveled around the nation preaching the evils of slavery. Lundy, in fact, managed to inspire a few people before he died in the 1840s — among them, William Lloyd Garrison, the great anti-slavery crusader who helped convince Lincoln to set black slaves free during the Civil War.

It’s not hard to see why Gabriel Prosser and Benjamin Lundy were considered fringe fanatics in their day. Slavery wasn’t going to go away in 1800 or 1840. No smart young man eager to influence policy would have done what they did.  But without their struggles, slavery might not have gone away in the 1860s. These two people really mattered — in some ways, more than the men who were presidents during their time.

It’s hard for activists to have this kind of long-term perspective. I recently got an email from someone on a progressive email list I am on that said, “Let’s make sure that Bush is the last Republican president.” I am sure it won’t be the last time I hear this kind of apocalyptic rhetoric between now and the 2004 election.

If you have any sense of history, you know that wish could come true. Political parties come and go, and in 1856 nobody really thought the Whigs were going to vanish from the American political scene. Some Republican president will be the last one. It could be this one. But you also know, if you study history, that it ain’t about Republicans — it’s about systems and egos and opportunities to exploit people. Bush is not going to be the last human being to sit on a pile of concentrated power and abuse it for the interests of his class/race/gender/gang.

In fact, every presidential election is a reminder of how presumptuous we activists can be, to think we stand at some special historical moment. Millions of dollars are spent to mobilize people around the idea that 1960 or 1984 or 2004 is some kind of Armageddon. And thousands of intelligent people get caught up in the illusion. Anyone who questions the importance of a presidential race gets accused of cynicism.

Perhaps the most decisive U.S. presidential election was the 1932 race, in which the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover. Many scholars argue that this electoral victory led to the modern liberal state, and possibly prevented a socialist or fascist government from coming to power in this country. But what really happened in 1932? A former governor of New York from a wealthy family was elected on a platform to make massive cuts in the federal budget. If the people hadn’t been in the streets, before and after the election, there would have been no New Deal. The election of Roosevelt may have been a necessary condition for the New Deal, but it was not a sufficient condition.

At any given moment, the government we have largely reflects the existing balance of power among various classes, ethnic groups, and communities. And that balance of power is the result of long-term efforts and trends, as well as purely random events. It is the result, in other words, of what millions of people — some long since dead — have done. The Roosevelts and Lincolns, and even the Gandhis and Guevaras, can do no more than the complex set of preexisting conditions allows. You and I help to create those conditions — sometimes much more than we know.

We may very well live through an event — perhaps the impeachment of George W. Bush, or the resignation of Dick Cheney? — that will become a defining moment for our generation. But we have no way of knowing for sure if or when those moments will come. Each of us is merely one more human being doing her or his best to find justice.

In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote that the United States “now appears before the world a naked and arbitrary power.” Its leaders were, “in the name of realism,” imposing “their often crackpot deliberations upon world reality,” Mills argued. He offered these views with no prescription for what could be done. He envisioned no movement that could use his insights. He simply felt it was wrong to “relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful.”

Last winter, millions marched around the world, in the first truly global mass movement against a planned act of war — the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Their actions were a resounding vindication, half a century later, of Mills’ criticisms of “naked and arbitrary power.” Today, other thinkers are following Mills’ lead in writing analyses that will someday pulse through the world — once people build a movement around them.

After my time as an activist is done, I hope someone else will breathe as I have breathed, be concerned as I have been concerned, and take a few risks for justice as I have. Or, even better, as Emma Goldman did, or Sojourner Truth, or the unknown person who first had the idea of a labor union, or who first insisted that the widows and orphans deserved a share of the year’s harvest. With each generation, the same song is sung. But it never comes without effort, and never without desire. And the song is no less beautiful or vital because it has been heard before many times and will be heard many times again.


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Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills


“John Brown and the Valley of the Shadow”
Information about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.


Brief description of John Kagi, a follower of the abolitionist John Brown.


“Historical Background of the Gabriel Prosser Slave Revolt”
Excerpt from American Negro Slave Revolts, by Herbert Aptheker. Published by International Publishers. 1974.

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