Moving the Movement

Moving the Movement


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Radical Visions, Possible Worlds

Scott Kurashige: We’re going to start with our panelists giving us their sense of how they see the world today and the core concepts we need—to make sense of the challenges we confront.
Grace Lee Boggs: I had the great privilege of coming to Detroit in 1953. And I have lived through Detroit becoming the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization, to becoming a national and international symbol of the devastation of industrialization.Today, you see here a symbol of a new kind of society. A society where the gulf between the industrial and the [agrarian] epoch are being resolved. Not because anyone thought it would be desirable, but because living at the expense of the earth, living at the expense of other people, has brought us to the edge of disaster. And it’s that time on the clock of the universe where we face an evolution to a higher humanity, or the devastation and extinction of all life on earth.

Grace Lee Boggs
Born in 1915 to Chinese immigrants, Boggs received her Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1940 and spent the next seven decades of her life as a movement activist, mostly in Detroit. Four of those decades were spent in partnership with James Boggs, an African American auto worker and organizer, developing theories of Black Power and a new American revolution. At the age of 95, Boggs remains an active member of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership founded in the 1990s by friends of Grace and Jimmy, and in Detroit, City of Hope. Her forthcoming is entitled The Next American Revolution: Radical Wisdom from a Movement Elder (co-authored with Scott Kurashige).
Immanuel Wallerstein

One of the most influential thinkers and writers of our time, Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University. He is renowned worldwide for his groundbreaking multivolume study of the modern world system, which is an interpretation of the global history of capitalism. Countless scholars have modeled their entire careers on Wallerstein’s world systems analysis. A prolific and widely translated writer, his book Utopistics; Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century grapples with many of the same themes presented in this discussion.

Immanuel Wallerstein: The way I approach this is to say that everybody lives in historical systems and historical systems do not go on forever. We’re living in one that we call capitalism, or the capitalist world economy, or the modern world system. It came into existence about 500 years ago. But systems don’t go on forever. They move slowly away from equilibrium until they get too far away. That’s where the modern world system is today. [It] has entered into its structural crisis. It’s not coming to an end just because lots of people are oppressed and don’t like it. That’s been true for a very long time. What’s new is that the system doesn’t provide the possibilities in its own terms to work, [i.e.] an endless accumulation of capital.

In a structural crisis, the alternatives are not only for those who are oppressed but also for the people who oppress us. They, too, see that the system is coming to an end. They, too, have to worry about what comes next. And that’s the long-term struggle that we’re in today. It’s a struggle in which there are two fundamental sides—not about preserving the present system, but about what will replace it.

When a system gets so far from equilibrium that it just doesn’t work anymore; when there’s nothing that can push it back to equilibrium; that’s when the so-called “free will factor” comes in and every little action on our part helps to determine the end—the end that we don’t know. That’s important to underline. We don’t know who’s going to win the struggle of the next 20 to 50 years to replace the present system. But it will depend on us. Because who wins is a matter of the addition of everybody’s effort, at every moment, in every part of the world. And the other side, they got a lot going for them. They got money, guns, intelligence, and power. They are not going to give up easily. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t be beaten.
That’s where we are. In the middle of a big struggle about how to replace the present awful system in which we live, with one that’s better. That’s why we say another world is possible. I underline the word possible. It’s possible, it’s not certain.

Boggs: That’s really important... to understand the difference between possible and necessary. When I became a radical many years ago, I wanted certainty. I wanted necessity. And I embraced Marxism for that reason. I’m not an anti-Marxist, but we need to look at ourselves and understand that what we’re talking about is uncertainty. Revolution is a new beginning. It’s not to prove that our analysis was correct.

Immanuel says in The End of the World As We Know It, “In uncertainty there is hope.” That is such a fundamental concept to understand… the difference between the possible and the necessary. To know that there is much more hope, much more need for making choices in the possible rather than in the necessary. The feudal system came to an end because they could no longer cope with their reality. It’s what’s happening in the Gulf and in the White House and with the shareholders of BP. One [thing] people [should] get out of this conversation is [that] there is a way in which history, philosophy, [and] theory help you understand reality and what should be done with it.

Kurashige: What is specific about capitalism that we need to understand if we are to make sense of what the system represents and how we must transcend it?

Wallerstein: Capitalism is a system that is based on the idea that there should be an endless accumulation of capital. You accumulate capital, in order to accumulate capital, in order to accumulate capital. You’re on this treadmill. And it depends on something called growth. Growth per se is not a plus or a minus. The capitalist system has the consequence of exploitation, hierarchy, and polarization. There has been an enormous polarization over the last 500 years, particularly in the last 50. It’s incredible, the degree of polarization—the gap between the less than one percent, the 20 percent who do reasonably well, and the 80 percent who don’t do reasonably well in the world.

In the indigenous movements of the Americas, they talk a lot about buen vivir, to live well. To live well is not necessarily to endlessly consume. It is indeed to make some kind of rational arrangement with the world—of the possibilities of fulfilling one’s self individually and collectively. That requires restraint, as well as growth. That’s the kind of system that hopefully, we want to create.

You have to work out a strategy that combines a very short run, immediate attempt to solve people’s needs. And a medium run strategy for transforming the system. I think of the very short run as one of minimizing the pain. It can be done in a thousand different ways. Some of it requires government action, some requires popular action. It doesn’t transform the world, but it meets people’s needs. There will be some new system emerging. At some point, it will crystallize.

Boggs: I want you—theoreticians or intellectuals or activists—to think about change very personally, in the way that people, for example, have changed in Detroit. In the 1970s and ‘80s, all you could see were vacant lots. Abandoned houses. Rot. Blight.

Then, some African American women who had lived in the South saw these vacant lots as places where you could grow food to meet a basic need. And they didn’t see it only in terms of belly hunger. They saw urban kids growing up without a sense of process, without a sense of time. And they thought urban agriculture would be a means for cultural change in young people. That’s how the Urban Agricultural Movement developed—out of that reality and the very human needs of people.

Wallerstein: One of the fundamental aspects of capitalism as a system is the commodification of everything. You want to turn all activities into activities done for a profit, in order that there be growth in the capital accumulation. Actually, commodification hasn’t been all that easy for capitalism. Up to about 50 years ago, there were lots of things that weren’t commodified. Water, by and large, was not commodified. Hospitals weren’t commodified. In an earlier period universities weren’t commodified. This mad rush in the last 30 to 50 years to commodify more and more of these things [is an attempt] to find a last bit of growth.

One of the things we can do, even in the short run, is to try to de-commodify. In part, to stop this madness. But also to test the alternative possibilities of what will work in a more decommodified world. We don’t really know how it all could work. We’ve got to experiment. That’s something we can do in the short run as part of the process of trying to make the transition from where we are now, into this other world, which is possible.

Boggs: This resistance to commodification is a human resistance. It’s not something that comes out of a book or a theory. All over the world, with the globalization of poverty, people are resisting the commodification of all our relationships. They are resisting the commodification of our environment, of our communities. That’s why you’re here. We are creating a new movement for re-humanization, for radical revolution values.
I don’t know how many of you have read Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War with the understanding that what he’s talking about is how we have been dehumanized by materialism. We have been dehumanized by consumerism. To understand the extent to which that has happened since World War II, you really need to talk about systems in the abstract and know how we become part of the systems.

The movement that we’re engaged in is not only a transformation of institutions but a transformation of ourselves. When you think of the movements of the ‘60s, too often we think in terms of particular identities—Blacks or Latinos or Asian Americans or women. But they were all part of a search for a new human identity. And that’s what we’re engaged in. When you think that way, when you understand why movements are created, or new systems are created... that shapes what you do with your time. You have to understand it. It’s not something you know just because you’re born a human. You have to be able to think philosophically and historically. So many of you here are young people in universities trying to figure out what you should do with your mind. Does your mind have a role?

Kurashige: Grace, you’ve written a lot about how we have to seek revolution, not as a one-time event that solves everything, but a protracted process. And that everything we do is about creating the new relations that go into a social transformation. Could you speak more about what is most important about new concepts of revolution?

Boggs: Most people still have in their minds a hierarchical concept of revolution that came out of the insurrection of 1917. And they haven’t thought enough about what’s happened since: How those who capture the state become prisoners of the state. And we, as radicals, haven’t seriously discussed and internalized the changing concepts of revolution. How we are in a period where we must see ourselves not as capturing the state, but as developing the ideas that will replace the ideas of the system. Because the ruling class rules not only through force but through its cultural hegemony. So, as intellectuals we have a really serious challenge.

How do we create the new ideas? How do we create alternatives? How do we get beyond our oppositional thinking? And all the anger that is involved in oppositional thinking? How do we really understand that revolution is a new beginning? Not only in terms of our economic systems and how we make our living, but in how we think and become more human.

Each revolution is an advance in our concept of what it means to be human. Back in 1917, they couldn’t but think in a hierarchical way. In the White House, they can’t help thinking in a hierarchical way. They think that the way to solve the educational crisis is to have more testing. They are not able to think of a non-hierarchical way of doing education that will make us all full participants in creating and governing our world.
I think, if we come out of this U.S. Social Forum with one thing, it should be to feel enormously challenged. To become more theoretical, as well as more practical. More imaginative.

I did a translation of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts many, many years ago. And I was able to identify with this young man. I know the things that you want when you’re young.

Marx wrote a marvelous passage in The Communist Manifesto, which I love and quote all the time: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man/woman is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Scott Kurashige is an activist with several organizations in Detroit and a professor of U.S. history and ethnic studies at the University of Michigan. This panel discussion was edited by Renee Yeng Geesler of KPFA’s First Voice Media/Apex. Recording assistance Clif Ross.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

Transformative Organizing

The history of organizing in the United States has always mirrored the politics of the country, with three major approaches driving social change: 1) Right-wing organizing as reflected in the Klu Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council, the Minuteman vigilantes, and the Tea Party Movement; 2) Pragmatic organizing, which fights for specific reforms in the interest of working people but is limited in scope and characterized by anti-Left ideology, at times making implicit deals with the U.S. Empire; 3) Left-wing organizing as characterized by militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of Empire, strategized by people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal, and progressive, also called “transformative organizing.”

Transformative Organizing, Now!
With the “Tea Party” rising in popularity and the Obama/Clinton administration busy pursuing the Empire’s objectives abroad, there is an urgent need for the Left to organize and generate a new movement rooted in a creative, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics among working class communities of color. The most effective framework for doing this is transformative organizing because: it is in revolutionary opposition to the power structures of colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism in its current form, which is imperialism; it actually transforms the consciousness of people who participate in the process; and it empowers organizers to stand up to the Right, reach out to people, and take on the system.

A Brief History of Transformative Organizing
The tradition of transformative organizing in the United States began with the indigenous resistance to European genocidal conquest and the early slave rebellions in Virginia. It continued with the Abolitionists and the Radical Republicans who constitutionally outlawed slavery and built the Reconstruction government after the Civil War. In the first part of the 20th century it took the form of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Anti-Imperialist League, the radical wing of the suffragettes, the Niagara Movement, the Back to Africa Movement, the Black and labor movements under the aegis of the U.S. Communist Party, and the (worldwide) anti-fascist front of the 1930s and ‘40s.

An anti-Left backlash following World War II (often called the McCarthy period and associated with the House Un-American Activities Committee) broke up communist-led unions and conducted witch hunts against radicals, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. But at the peak of this reactionary period in the 1950s there was a resurgence of transformative organizing that would later be called the Two Decades of the Sixties, characterized by the defeat of the French by Vietnam in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia (a precursor to the Non-Aligned Summit of 1961), and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam in 1975.

During the heyday of the multiracial New Left movement, the word “organizer” was synonymous with Black militant, anti-war, pro-socialist, and anti-imperialist politics. Use of the term “liberation” by the women’s and gay liberation movements was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.

As Clayborne Carson explains in his book, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, the young civil rights workers began calling themselves “revolutionaries” to distinguish themselves from the less militant, more accommodationist forces allied with gradualism, the civil rights establishment, and the Democratic Party. This distinction evolved into solidarity with African revolutions, opposition to the Vietnam war, and a variety of urban rebellions and mass strikes by Black workers.

By the time of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, students all over were closing down universities in opposition to the war. Organizationally, it had involved  building the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Third World Women’s Alliance, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the La Raza Unida Party, the Red Guards, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the Indochina Peace Campaign. By the end of the ‘70s, there was a movement for Third World communism in the U.S. allied with national liberation movements around the world.
The massive following for the Left’s initiatives formed a significant threat to the system and there was a ferocious counterrevolution—White backlash against organizations and social movements on the Left—which took the form of intense government repression through an explicit counter-insurgency program, COINTELPRO. And since 1980, successive presidencies have set about aggressively dismantling the social welfare state and attacking, besides other nations, the environment, unions, Blacks, Latino immigrants, and women.

The State of Transformative Organizing Today

By 1980 the movement, although victorious in ending the Vietnam War and gaining civil rights, was spent and exhausted, partly owing to the imprisonment and assassination of its leadership. This decline in power was only exacerbated by the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian attacks within the Left. The crises of socialism in China and the Soviet Union further accelerated political disorientation, causing the fervor of transformative organizing to wane.

Within this vacuum emerged Saul Alinsky’s self-proclaimed “pragmatic/realistic” approach to organizing. Although militant and often effective in winning important reforms for working people, it set unnecessarily narrow objectives, limited by its own ideology. Some advocates were explicitly anti-Left, but justified their narrow economic fights in the name of “non-ideological” organizing for “the community.” They rarely acknowledged that all organizing is ideological or that their “pragmatism” often relied upon close ideological ties to the Democratic Party, trade union bureaucracies, and powerful church hierarchies.

Both transformative organizing and pragmatic organizing fight for just and immediate demands, such as more low-income housing, better funding for schools, and higher wages for public sector workers. But in choosing not to frame campaigns within fundamental structural challenges to racism, police brutality, imperialist wars, and the battle for LGBTQ, immigrant, and basic democratic rights, the “pragmatists” isolate themselves from their community’s need for deep social transformation. Indeed, with its aggressive anti-Left ideology, pragmatic organizing often conciliates with Empire-building.

It is important, however, to understand that the difference between pragmatic and transformative approaches is strategic, not moral. The Labor/Community Strategy Center’s assessments of a situation concerning its work in Los Angeles often coincide with those of the “pragmatists,” even if their constraints sometimes make it difficult for them to take a stand, or they disapprove of the Center’s tactics. But both have a strong base in the Black and Latino working class, and fight together on ballot initiatives that attack immigrants and communities of color. Still, in the interest of building a movement for long-term structural change in the U.S., the differences of strategy need to be addressed.

Since the 1980s, movement veterans and many young people have resisted the “pragmatic” move to the Right and worked instead to carry out effective radical, Left, and revolutionary politics as they organize in low-income communities and college campuses. Today, the pendulum continues to swing left as many dedicated organizers start questioning the limits of the pragmatic approach. The U.S. Social Forum is a reflection of the reassertion of anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics. Its slogan “Another World Is Possible; Another U.S. Is Necessary,” represents tens of thousands of working class people, communities of color, immigrants, G.I.s, and students who are rejecting the trap of pragmatism in favor of transformative organizing.

Transformative Organizing on the Ground
The Labor/Community Strategy Center has tried to follow Transformative Organizing Theory in its work since its founding in 1989. It has organized domestic, hotel, and garment workers, security guards, high school students in low-income working class communities of color, and bus riders in Los Angeles to transform the power structures and policies of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism.

In its flagship project—the Bus Riders Union (BRU)—the Center engaged tens of thousands of L.A.’s bus riders—predominantly immigrants, people of color, and women with an average annual income of $12,000—with on-the-bus organizing. The conversations were grounded in immediate demands for low fares and a first class clean-fuel bus system, but within an anti-racist, anti-imperialist framework.

Grassroots Global Justice Alliance/La Alianza Popular para la Justicia Global (GGJ) is made up of over 60 organizations (including the Strategy Center) that bring transformative organizing into the political life of low-income, working class communities of color, while emphasizing its inter-connectedness with an international movement for global justice. At a time when the menace of neo-fascism is before us, GGJ is helping to generate a broader theoretical and strategic framework for movement-building, which strengthens forces on the Left and encourages challenges to the Empire and all it represents.

The Tenets of Transformative Organizing
The theory of transformative organizing is based on the foundations of class consciousness, political leadership, and revolutionary organization as laid out below:
1. Transformative organizing seeks radical social change through the strategy of building an international united front to challenge the U.S. Empire.
The U.S. is a structurally racist, imperialist power. Driven by the need to relentlessly expand—a characteristic of advanced capitalism—it operates to control the economies, governments, and peoples of every nation, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Transformative organizing strategy can help build a worldwide countermovement.
2. The transformative organizer is a conscious agent of change, a revolutionary educator with a plan to intervene in and make history.
A critical goal of the ruling classes—those who own and control the means of production, consumption, education, and defense—is to achieve political loyalty and voluntary obedience from those they dominate. When they succeed, many exploited and oppressed people come to accept the established relationships of class, race, and gender, believing that they are part of some moral master plan. So, the social change they seek is tacitly limited within the rules of the dominant system. The transformative organizer acts as a revolutionary educator with a plan to intervene in and make history.
3. Transformative organizing requires the leadership of society’s most exploited, oppressed, and strategically placed classes and races.
Although transformative organizing generates social movements that involve members from all classes of society—including the most privileged—given the specific history of the United States as a settler state built on genocide, slavery, stolen lands, and stolen peoples, certain radical organized forces have proven to be the most successful leaders of the resistance.
4. Transformative organizing is produced by transformative organizations. From the first days of colonization of the Americas and the first moments of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, there have been spontaneous and organized forms of resistance. Throughout U.S. history, many transformative organizations have fought for radical objectives against the U.S. Empire.
5. Transformative organizing becomes truly transformative in the course of battle.
An organization’s success is ultimately judged by its capacity to take on powerful corporate and government forces, put forth radical demands, and wage long-term battles. Transformative organizers and organizations build their reputation on high visibility campaigns that fight for and often win important structural changes and improvements in the lives of real people.
6. Transformative organizing transforms the organizers.
A fundamental premise of transformative organizing is that social being creates social consciousness. As a person changes from observer to activist to organizer, their consciousness changes. In fighting the company that has not paid their wages, defending neighbors who are being deported, organizing coworkers in the sweatshops and fields for better pay and longer breaks, fighting sexual harassment in the workplace and police harassment at school, they often experience monumental changes in their consciousness.
7.  Transformative organizing requires a transformative political program.
Transformative organizing is best understood by its concrete demands that force the system to make radical structural changes. Throughout history, only transformative demands have motivated the strongest social movements with the greatest mass participation, militancy, and duration.

Eric Mann is director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory, published by Frontlines Press, See the video of the presentations at the United States Social Forum.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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What's Wrong with our Social Justice Movements?

A United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader, James Lawson was a counterpart of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966, and as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., played a major role in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. As a young college student, Lawson was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence through his association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), America’s oldest pacifist organization. Now retired, he continues to teach nonviolence and fight for the rights of the oppressed.

Andrew Stelzer: I think a lot of people would say that since the 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, we haven’t really seen a massive effective mobilization that worked on any issue. Do you think that’s true?

Lawson: Yes. The peace movement has failed. I would say that mobilizations at the Democratic or Republican conventions (in which I have participated) in Seattle, and some of the anti-Iraq War mobilizations have failed. What is needed is a protracted struggle—organizing around non-violent assessment and focusing on a target—with maybe a decade or two of intense activity that does not depend upon Congressional legislation, but rather forces upon a city or nation the agenda of justice and truth.

Stelzer: Sounds like one suggestion is to force local governments rather than the national government to respond. What other tactics are missing?
Lawson: I think all action has to be local action. Local action can become national action if it strikes the ethos of the American people in such a fashion that it will be imitated in many other centers of movement.

Stelzer: You don’t think there is a modern day equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement?
Lawson: Not at all. There’s no modern day equivalent.

Stelzer: What do you say to those who claim that the Immigrant Rights Movement or the Gay Rights Movement are the equivalents?
Lawson: The Gay Rights Movement is mostly about getting laws passed. It is not a movement where tens of thousands of people in the street are demanding change [through] an agenda that they put in the nation’s mind. They’re doing much more lobbying behind the scenes, trying to stop some elections, which they have not done successfully. It’s not a non-violent movement and it’s not been that effective, in my judgment.

Stelzer: Do you think these movements are not effective because they aren’t trying? Or they just haven’t found the right strategy—or are refusing to see it?
Lawson: I don’t think they have the right strategy. In the first instance, they’re not working from a non-violent perspective and methodology. Secondly, they’re not taking the time to assess what they need to be doing or what needs to be corrected [before] settling on a single issue and working on it. Thirdly, they’re not mobilizing in terms of a mass direct action that dramatizes the issue and helps to change the public mind.

I think there is far more action today than we had in 1953 or 1955 or 1959. But more action over a greater numbers of issues has failed. One, because of the lack of serious study and commitment, including a serious study of the freedom movement of the Southeast and it’s non-violence and Gandhian methodology. Second, because even some of the activist-leaders have not been persuaded that there is a connection between, for example, racism and sexism.

Racism, sexism, violence, and plantation capitalism are interrelated to each other. That’s the principle of convergence. In the movement, Dr. King suggested this. There was a gradual awareness that you had issues of racism; issues of structural poverty, which is what slavery was; and the issue of militarization of the nation. He sensed that all three of these had to be dismantled in order for a new democratic society of justice and truth to emerge.
All through American history, there has been an inability on the part of all sorts of reformers to see the connection between the reforms they want—say, labor unions and racism, or sexism and the violence of society. They’ve not been able to see the interlocking—to see them as parallel systems of denial and oppression for some people. Therefore, they cannot [be] resolved separately. Any effective work against racism is going to also dismantle sexism. And effective work [against both] will dismantle the structural as well as the spiritual forms of violence.

Stelzer: The poor people’s campaign that Dr. King was working on when he was killed, is that an example of convergence? Had that convergence happened already, or was it beginning to happen at that point?
Lawson: He was very clearly trying to get the Peace Movement to see that the issue of poverty and economic deprivation is connected to the issue of justice, which is connected to the issue of peace. This emerging convergence that he recognized, that many of us recognized in the movement, was [in] the beginning stages. Although, I have to say that I made some of those connections as early as 1958 in my workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other groups around the Southeast.

Stelzer: What is plantation capitalism?
Lawson: Capitalism in the United States began essentially with the taking of the land from the Indians and was compounded by 250 years of plantation slavery [which treated] the worker as a commodity and not as a human being. It solidified racism and made it a system. Plantation capitalism, therefore, is the repetition of those [ideas] in terms of business, workers, profits, and the use of capital.

Over the last 20 years, more than 50 percent of the new jobs that Republicans and Democrats have bragged about have been poverty jobs. We applaud, among other things, a surplus labor force because it keeps wages down. Now workers cannot sustain themselves or their families, therefore [they cannot] be that influential in their neighborhoods about their own environment, [just like in] the 250 years of slavery.

The Wall Street Journal insists that a major goal for the economy is to help people become billionaires and millionaires. In order to gather that wealth quickly or even over a 10-year period, you must fight to see that the workers are not sharing in the benefits of their labor. That is plantation capitalism.
When you allow wealth to accumulate in such a way that you drive out family-owned businesses and farms and produce these huge corporations that in many ways are unmanageable but dictate the notion that the major purpose for our cooperation is turning a profit, you have plantation capitalism.
Now, I differ tremendously [with that idea]. I think, for example, my medical dollar should provide a good living for all the people connected with the practice of medicine—the doctors, the nurses, the paramedical people, the lab techs, even the janitors who scrub the floors. But I do not believe that my health dollar should be used to make millionaires [of] a family that uses venture capital to buy up hospitals.

I don’t mind folks who become very affluent in various ways in our economy, but I do mind where that’s [done] at the expense of the folk who do the labor. Our society is in trouble because we have a whole lot of work that we need to do: on the infrastructure, on the clean up of the environment, the turning of empty lots into gardens, the turning of empty buildings into useful enterprises (including housing for the community). But I think that the bosses of our society are deliberately excluding that kind of work from being done because they are bound to the notion that work essential for society’s well being ought to be under the rubric of profit for entrepreneurs.

Stelzer: One of the things Dr. King had been talking about was sit-ins around hospitals until everyone got care. If he hadn’t been assassinated, do you think some of these battles we are fighting today could have been won 30 or 40 years ago?
Lawson: The politics of assassination in the 1960s changed our country forever. I have no doubt that the King assassination was agreed to and planned by major agencies of local and federal government, including probably, military intelligence. I suspect that the other assassinations [also] have some of the same footprints, but I’ve not studied them like I’ve studied and investigated the King assassination. When a society produces young men like John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King—who I do not say were perfect products of humanity but were people emerging in their humanity, their vision, [and] their ability to work with society for creative life—when a nation allows such people to be killed off, you do more damage to your nation than you can even imagine. Those assassinations meant that the movement of which King had become a symbol—direct action on the part of the people, people withdrawing their consent from racism and violence, and people organizing themselves to put a justice or a freedom agenda in the White House, in congress, or in the governor’s mansion—that movement got shortchanged and did not have the opportunity to develop into maturity and into the next generation.

It’s very clear that all five of these men were learning a great deal about themselves and about their nation. Malcolm X is the most dramatic example of that. The two Kennedys had no idea about the meanness in our society—the poverty that was structural—before they emerged nationally. King, Evers, and Malcolm X had learned a great deal about how to move for change. This meant that on the one side you had folks who were appointed or elected to office, and on the other, folks who were coming out of grassroots mass mobilization and action. A perfect combination for serious change in a nation. [But] all of that was destroyed or prohibited and the good work that had been done to create those five men was aborted. Now it has to be done over again because obviously, we have a leadership crisis.

Stelzer: Are there any movements now in 2010 that inspire you or give you hope?
Lawson: The movement for the 21st century has not yet taken shape. There may be creative activity and creative groups coming together at the local level that will, one day, be the foundation of the 21st century non-violent movement for the United States. But it is not now in place.

Stelzer: You are a proponent of non-violence. But here in Mexico, you’ve heard some say that their heroes are guerilla armies, or folks who participated in armed revolutions that led to the liberation of their people. Even in the United States, there are stories of armed slave rebellions where people achieved some semblance of freedom. How do you respond to people who point to examples like that?

Lawson: My great grandfather was a slave. Anyone who pretends that there were successful slave revolts is quite mistaken. There were lots of them, no doubt. But the two best known examples—Denmark Vesey’s rebellion in South Carolina in 1822 and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in 1831—did not succeed. And the leadership and many innocent people in Virginia and South Carolina were wiped out.

Meanwhile, the underground railroad was far more successful in getting people out from under slavery. That’s how my own great grandfather got out. Also, the revolt of people like Frederick Douglass who as a boy, against the law, learned how to read; or of Owen Brown, who became an accountant on his plantation in South Carolina; or the people who, in contradiction to the wishes of the master, honed their skills so that they could leave or acquired skills that would benefit them in the long run—that was a far greater revolt. It did more to free slaves than any of the violent revolts. Then there are the slaves who said, “I’m not going to let this master convince me I’m less than a human being!” That was another form of revolt. I think there is today a revision of the black experience that could be insidious. I think it’s quite wrong.

To my knowledge, there’s only one [example of] guerilla warfare in Latin America that produced serious change, and that was Fidel Castro. I mean, look at Colombia. The units have been fighting for 50 years, and it’s the people who suffer—from the oligarchy and American militarism as well as from the so-called guerilla units.

After the revolution Castro fundamentally changed his perspective to a non-violent one. He said, “I’m going to eradicate racism and segregation and infant mortality and illiteracy. We’re going to help people go to work in the fields, whereby they can make a living.” The only handicap [for] Castro has been the antagonism and the overt acts of invasion and assault by the United States government. Cuba would be a model for the whole world were it not for the U.S.

Stelzer: What does that say? That violent revolution is okay if you have a really good leader who sticks to his values?
Lawson: No, I don’t think so. It says that even if you have a military revolution that overthrows a tyrant, to be effective, you must turn to developing a nation that is whole—by dismantling injustices, educating people. What has too often happened with guerilla warfare is that it becomes an obsession, a pathology that no longer has any merit for healing the human condition. That’s the danger of certain kinds of action. It can become so addictive that humans lose control of themselves and are diseased.

Stelzer: You seem to be saying “violence is never okay,” but “in this one case it turned out okay.”
Lawson: No, I’m saying something more than that. Folks who have these notions about the efficacy of violence can only point to Castro. But one could say that maybe Castro’s violence is what triggered America’s violence. I’m not justifying American violence. I am saying that people who want a better world had better look at the role of violence—behavioral, organized, and systemic—and recognize that in the last 100 years, maybe with the exception of World War II, violence has been the leading enemy of justice and peace in the world. It not only devastates in all sorts of ways, it has also deprived civilian human enterprises of the resources needed to solve problems.

Andrew Stelzer is a producer for Making Contact, a national radio show based in Oakland, California where he produced the radio show on which this article is based. He can be reached at

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits