At the start of December 4th 1969, Fred Hampton was drugged by a FBI informant after teaching a political education course at a local church in Chicago. Later, when he was passed out, fourteen cops burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed, next to his pregnant girlfriend. After two shots to the head to confirm his death, he was dragged into the hallway and left in a pool of blood. He was 21 years old.
Almost 100 years earlier, John Brown sat at his desk, waiting for execution at the age of 59. He wrote his last words to his wife. She was waiting nearby, but he was refused the right to spend the last night of his life with her, that refusal being the only time his stoic comportment threatened to break down. He had helped lead a militant uprising of enslaved people. He was hanged and then put in his coffin, noose still around his neck, and sent back north to be buried.
The list of American radicals who died in battle against a massive system of oppression is long and should be a source of pride for Americans who seek to follow a life fighting for economic and social justice. They were those who were expelled by the society they lived in because of their beliefs, because of the color of their skin, because of their sex, the list goes on. These were people willing to die for their beliefs. Even those who were possibly not ready still died sometimes. They were those whose death would perpetuate the American machine of oppression and pain.
What is a radical? A radical is a thorn in the side of what she opposes. The radical is pushed outward like a splinter under the skin. The radical accepts that she will live a life of lack unless she gives in and changes her mind. Even then, she might not make her way back into the fold. This is to be expected – a radical seeks to disrupt the reproduction of oppression, not negotiate or change it warmly. As we edge closer to the abyss, as the planet itself threatens to crumble underneath our feet, those who would call themselves radicals must make a decision. Are they pleading or are they demanding? Are they negotiating or are they accusing?
When I was a little girl, I learned about my great-grandfather, shipped over from the old country as a child and sold to a mining company in Montana. He grew up to become an IWW organizer and was beaten, threatened and blacklisted. Blacklisted was the first radical word I learned. To be blacklisted is a heavy thing for sure, and my grandfather grew up in crushing poverty. My great-grandmother begged for food. No one offered him a warm hand because he was a thorn in the side of capitalism, because he demanded that workers have the right to the means of production and to the fruits of their labor. The labor movement was fighting for an eight-hour day. Now, as the eight-hour day slips through our fingers, today’s self-proclaimed radicals write television reviews for major American newspapers and hold court at academic conferences.
They claim they are interested in building a party – but where is the phone number? How do I get involved? Is it a party that will vote Democrat? The academics – and I am an academic, considering my education – fight over semantics and whether or not pornography is ethical. Meanwhile, people all over the country are ready for more. They are ready for disruption. Sectors of this generation see the ability to reproduce themselves being eroded away. Nearly seven million Americans are under correctional supervision. Schools are being closed. Poison is being poured in our lakes and rivers, in our oceans and all over our land. Be sure – this will not hold. It’s not sustainable. But the people in power will try every trick in the book to sustain themselves.
We’ve seen it before. We talk about women as if their biggest problem is what sort of clothes they’re wearing. We talk about race as if we have the first black president. Now the very term “radical” – a comforting dogwhistle nowadays for sleepy anticapitalists – is being appropriated, subsumed into the project of class reproduction. When you broadcast your opinions and find it thrilling that major media outlets have brought you on board, you need to consider your part to play in the reproduction of class. Do you make a living on your radicalism? Do you want to? My beloved once told me: “I want to be a low-level Soviet bureaucrat, but you live the life you have, not the life you want.”
There is nothing wrong with carving out a corner and trying to feed yourself. It is quite another project you are envisioning, however, when book deals with no outlines line up and event coordinators begin to court you. When you imagine a new party, one that appeals to the so-called masses through the capitalist propaganda machine, you must be very careful. When you start getting printed in the New York Times and Washington Post, when you see your face staring back at you as the primary photo accompanying a story, you must be even more careful. A story about you is not a story of the system of oppression that cracks skulls every day in this country.
When your critics become your trolls, this is because you somehow think your points are correct because you have more of a space to speak. You forget how you got this page space, you forget why it was given to you. You (yes, you dear reader!) are part of this machine now. The skin is not pushing you outwards, it is pulling you in towards its organs. Close your eyes and imagine what is is like to have paid staffers, then wonder why so many Black Panthers were sleeping in the same apartment that tragic night in Chicago. When you yell down that someone is a troll because they have less twitter followers than you, remember that you are calling yourself a radical and placing yourself in a pantheon of radicals who gave their lives to end capitalism. Wonder then, why Fred Hampton wasn’t published in the New York Times.
Slavoj Zizek is honest when he says that he thinks there must be a vanguard party because he himself wants nothing to do with struggle, with politics. He wants to be a boring man with a boring life somewhere. Who then, will execute the ideas of those who proclaim to be on the vanguard of the Left today – who are the radicals? Do they exist? The Left Forum is this weekend in New York, and Verso, the leading publisher of leftist books, sent out invitations to their after-party. Have we ever seen such a crowd of communists who are so willing and able to rationalize away their own inaction? Watch them drink cocktails and discuss the importance of this or that idea, watch them rally around positions like it’s some sort of game. I went to an ISO meeting in Brooklyn and met fund managers, people in advertising. We must look at the way that these “radical” ideas should shape our lives. What worth does a bunch of words on paper have when there is no one that is willing to put their thoughts into action? What do these “writers” even think of their own ideas when they do not even inspire themselves to make the necessary sacrifices, adopt the necessary discipline? Here we suddenly find shivering cowards, insisting that they are caught up in their everyday lives too much to put a shoulder to the wheel and push.
Overthrowing capitalism is about sacrifice and discipline. When we fantasize class revolution or wars against Nazis, we fancy ourselves willing to give our lives to the cause. Yet when it comes to choosing paths in our lives, we hesitate in committing fully to our positions. It becomes about this or that obligation, the desire and right, we bark defensively, to lead a normal boring life. Tough shit, comrade! If even Marx shivered in poverty while shoveling what money he had into failed revolutionary causes then surely you puffing up about twitter followers, an appearance on television or in the pages of a society magazine is nothing to brag about. If people like John Brown were willing to put their head in a noose, if strikers willing to be shot in the streets for demanding eight-hour workdays, if tens of millions of Soviets died fighting the Nazis, isn’t steering clear of a lifetime of normalcy and comfort the least you can do?