'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ellsberg Remembers Zinn 

A moving personal tribute by Ellsberg for his dear friend. Over the past year, the left has lost several prominent male figures with roots in the New Left of the 1960s: Europeans like Peter Gowan, Giovanni Arrighi, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaid and Americans like Ronald Takaki and, now, Howard Zinn. With the emergence of more women on the left as a consequence of the women's liberation movement, we shall soon sadly experience their departure as well.

All of these figures deserve the praise that has accompanied their deaths, but, perhaps, it is time for reflection as well. Recently, Diana Block, an American radical of the 1970s and 1980s, wrote a moving autobiography entitled, Arm the Spirit, published by AK Press. I posted a two part review of it here last April and May. In it, Block relates her experiences of personal empowerment against the backdrop of political failure. She encourages readers to ponder to what extent she, and those that she worked with, succeeded, and to what extent they failed, and, even more importantly, why they were unable to persuade more people to rally in support of their vision of society.

It is a central question for these radicals, especially American ones like Zinn, Takaki and Block, as the Europeans, Gowan, Arrighi, Bensaid and Harman, are manifestations of a culture that encourages more self-reflection. Block, to her credit, confronted it as best she could, and it would have been mesmerizing to hear or read what Zinn had to say about it as well. Perhaps, he did, and I missed it. I concede that I have not followed his statements and writings avidly. My impression, however, is that Zinn, like most others of his era, evaded the question by treating as a problem of inadequate education. If we just keep telling people why bigotry, militarism, poverty and, yes, even capitalism, are bad, they will eventually figure it out.

Well, maybe so. But it didn't happen during Zinn's lifetime, and his insistence upon support for Democratic presidential candidates, while emphasizing the necessity of social movements to push them into doing the right things (much like his contemporary, Takaki), did not spark the popular imagination. Indeed, the Open Letter to Barack Obama that he, and many other activists and academics, signed in the summer of 2008 helped to motivate me to abandon the electoral process entirely, and post an ongoing critique of it under the label Vote or Die. If it wasn't obvious at the time, it is now evident that the letter represents an abject capitulation of the left in the face of the most rigorous rationalization of the global economy by finance capital since the late 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, Ellsberg was not an initial signatory of the letter posted on the The Nation website, although I can't say as to whether he added his name afterwards.

As I said, perhaps Zinn addressed this subject in the final years of life, and was unable to get people to listen. If so, I'd be very interested in what he said or wrote, if anyone visiting this site can direct me to places where his remarks can be found. Because, if we really want to show respect for people like Zinn and others of his generation, we should seek to understand and learn from their failures as well as celebrate their personal bravery, integrity and accomplishments. Otherwise, we risk reducing the significance of their lives to the sterility of an innocuous personality cult.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?