June 21, 2023.
On Wednesday last week, we held our long-anticipated discussion of Don Hamerquist’s A Brilliant Red Thread at our favorite bookstore in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The featured speakers were:
- Luis Brennan, the editor of the volume;
- Amelia Cates, a long-time Portland activist who has worked closely with Don;
- Mike Morgan and John Garvey of the Hard Crackers editorial group.
The big surprise of the evening was that we were able to arrange the premier showing of a short excerpt of a video interview of Don and Janeen Porter that is being produced to accompany the book. Don was sitting in what looked like a comfortable rocking chair in a corner of the cabin in the far northwest of Washington State–where he grew up and where he and his partner, Janeen, have lived for more than twenty years. He was asked to talk about his young life and the influence his parents had on his politics. He was calm, enthusiastic and meticulous; his responses gave everyone present some good reasons for buying and reading the book.
I forgot to mention the audience we attracted. Even though it was an evening in the middle of the week, almost twenty brave souls made it to the bookstore. Early reports indicate that they thought it had been worth the effort.
Let me say a bit more about the program. Luis talked about the work involved in assembling the collection and in deciding what texts would go in and which ones left out. One aspect of the decision-making was a practical one—how long could the book be. He emphasized that most of the texts had never been made public before—they had been posted on listservs or sent to individuals and groups as private messages. At the same time, they had been crafted as if they were going to be read widely –which is why they can be read so productively today.
Amelia spoke about their frequent visits to Don and Janeen’s home so that they could discuss with anything and everything that had been happening in the schools and on the streets of Portland. Every report invited serious commentary from Don or Janeen. But they seldom had hard slogans to offer; indeed, perhaps the only slogan they embraced was “Act and think for yourselves!” Amelia was quick to point out that there were times when they were in the position of giving needed advice to Don and Janeen—mostly about how important it was not to underestimate what they were doing even though they were far away.
Mike Morgan took the crowd on a rollicking adventure of mishaps and misdeeds that he had the good fortune of going along with Don and Janeen on. By comparison, I provided a staid analysis of the “legacies of Sojourner Truth Organization” (STO). I emphasized the significance and endurance of the group’s intellectual/political influences, manifested in the group’s many internal and external documents available on the web, as well as the decades-long activity of Don and other key leaders of the group and their involvement with the development of younger activists. But I acknowledged that there are no current organizations that approximate what STO had been able to accomplish.
The presentations were followed by a brief discussion. Some spoke with high regard about their recollections of STO members that they had encountered in workplaces; others expressed interest in knowing more about STO. All in all, the event ended in an upbeat spirit.
By way of an ending
Earlier in the program, Luis had read a couple of pages from the last text included in the book to illuminate the crystal-clear relevance of Don’s thinking on revolutionary organization. This is what he read:
…. any organizational approach must grapple with the fact that there is a qualitative difference between mass movements of resistance and negation that refuse capital’s command in a variety of ways, and a mass revolutionary challenge that presents and embodies a positive alternative to capital as a social order. We have learned at substantial cost in any radical organizing thrust that can’t embody a positive affirmation of a systemic alternative that makes sense to working people will encounter crippling problems down the road–sometimes losing anything that distinguishes it as “revolutionary” in the mass struggle, sometimes taking on the character of a deranged sect, sometimes a combination of both.
Mass struggles are negative responses to features of capital oppression and exploitation that are usually contained within the framework of capital and that seldom raise challenges to its basic premises. However, in most genuine struggles some militants move beyond repetitive, episodic cycles of activity and passivity as they discover real social values in acts of collective resistance that are not strictly limited by their potential to achieve reform objectives. In the old STO Gramscian categories, we might say that some participants in struggle experience an epistemological break that opens up a new horizon of political and personal possibilities. I emphasize “some” because the development of a mass struggle always divides its base–often sharply–and only a part, a relatively small minority, experiences this new sense of possibilities– and even then, usually temporarily. This social layer will provide the basis for any revolutionary alternative to capital, and one major task of revolutionary organization is to develop a political/ cultural home for such people without isolating them from their social roots. This requires left organizations that offer expanded opportunities to fight existing power; but equally important, left organizations that are accessible to regular-assed people and that take the injunction to live among them seriously. These organizations must be essentially horizontal, if they are to productively relate to the potentials of mass struggles, and, in my opinion, under the current political and security conditions they must at least begin as essentially local.
Instead of “agreement” on political abstractions, the major emphasis in such consolidation should be developing common work–shared organizing projects as contrasted with shared principles of unity–a shared commitment to be accountable to a collective and a willingness to submit one’s ideas and activity to its critical review is essential.
Finally, we must also recognize that parallel issues are faced by hundreds of millions across the globe who are on our side—or we on theirs; by millions who have moved into radical oppositional activity–although perhaps only momentarily; and by tens of thousands of consciously anti-capitalist revolutionaries who are dispersed virtually everywhere. That’s the good side of the situation. It’s not the only side. The difficulties in developing and consolidating revolutionary movements with workable strategies and sustainable organizational forms aren’t unique to us either. We are not alone, but there are no clear “revolutionary paths” or “lines of march” to follow.
It’s kind of fitting that the last words in an account of a discussion of a book collecting Don Hamerquist’s writings should come from Don himself. All of his words deserve to be read, discussed and argued with. That’s the legacy he wants.
We hope that similar events can happen elsewhere across the country. The more exposure that the book gets, the better it is for the struggle to build a new society.