Nonviolent Activist, March-April 1999
NONVIOLENT ACTIVIST: The Magazine of the War Resisters League

March-April 1999:
Thinking About David's Retirement
David McReynolds: Socialist Peacemaker, by Paul Buhle
Thinking About Retirement, by David McReynolds
Activist News: Student Sit-Ins, Jill Boskey
WRL News: NC Lovefest, New Locals, DWOP Lives
Activist Reviews (Grace Paley; Johnny Got His Gun)

War Resisters League
Nonviolent Activist

Thinking About Retirement
By David McReynolds

On the road to the 1986 War Resisters International Triennial Conference in India. Photo: WRL files.
My first thought is, "Am I really this old?" Sixty-nine is young-if viewed from 89. And if I get that far I will wonder at my presumption in thinking 69 was anything but the spring of early middle age. (I remember A. J. Muste saying at a meeting of the Liberation board in the late 1950s, as so much was changing, "Oh I wish I was 50 again!"). My youth is muddled in my brain with events of today. I think I'm in my thirties, then I look in the mirror and am reminded that by all reasonable standards, I am, ahem, old. That I don't feel old doesn't matter-one of the secrets of life is that old people don't feel old.

Those of you who are 30 will find out soon (far sooner than you realize) that lots of things happen around 60-and not just graduating from bifocals to trifocals. One becomes both invisible and irrelevant. Where once it might have seemed risky to cross through a knot of rough kids on the street who might have mistaken you for an intruder on their turf, you will find you are quite invisible and can pass through their surly ranks in safety. And the arguments you make in meetings are also invisible. How often I dismissed the thoughts of those thirty years older than myself: "How out of touch they are," I would think, closing my ears to their logic, wishing they would finish so we could get on with the meeting. Now it is my turn. This is one factor that makes it wise for radicals to retire from playing an active leading role.

Of course, radicals don't actually retire. This is not a job like any other. Unless our beliefs change, we hold steady to whatever course we had set, writing, speaking when asked, joining demonstrations and direct actions, attending meetings (but surely, dear God, fewer committee meetings). It is not true that radicals become conservative as they age-most of the time they remain radical. There are exceptions: A Trotskyist leader I knew became a supporter of the CIA, and my existential hero, Bayard Rustin, became a neo-conservative. I would hope to take my example from those such as A.J. Muste and Norman Thomas, who became more radical with age, with the impatience that comes with age and the knowledge of how much must be done and how little time we have.

But on with the matter at hand. There are five points I would make. First, if we have any wisdom at all, we finally realize how little we have accomplished. We are reduced to a grain of sand on history's beach, in a universe of infinite beaches. Awareness of our own limits is a good inducement to spend more time having fun while the sun of life still shines. And humility is a guard against that pomposity that too often marches with age.

Second, I loo back in wonder that a gangly kid growing up in Los Angeles, unhappy with sports (which I have always hated, being, invariably, the last person chosen for teams-in high school it was, "Look, we took David last time, you take him this time."), should have had a life so full and exciting. A kid too tall too soon, haunted by being homosexual, convinced I was the only person so cursed. (I don't grasp the word "gay"-it is so ironic!) A coward who has gotten through life without ever being in a proper fist fight. I suffered a double burden in high school: Working-class kids thought I was an A student and belonged to the Honor Society, while kids in the Honor Society knew I didn't belong to anything. I had to go to summer school to make up grades to get into college. That I have survived, seen so much of this country and the world, met so many remarkable people-this is something I find extraordinary.

Burning his draft card in support of Vietnam War resisters, 1965; A.J. Muste on right, David third from right.
Third, I note that since I went to work for Liberation magazine in 1957, and then for the War Resisters League in 1960, I have been a "peace movement bureaucrat." This made my radicalism and openness of life vastly easier than for those trying to survive in corporate society. While being homosexual has not exempted me from heartbreak, it has meant I had no family to support. This doesn't make me lucky, but it does make a radical life a great deal easier. All lives are lived in compromise of one kind or another. The wages of the WRL staff are paid out of your pockets. If some of you reading this didn't hold "straight" jobs, the WRL staff would starve. So I owe you a personal debt of thanks.

Activist's Seminar
I was lucky to be Editorial Secretary of Liberation from 1957 to 1960, three years of weekly meetings in Greenwich Village that began at 4:00 p.m. and ran until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., usually broken by dinner at the Blue Mill Tavern, with Liberation board members A.J. Muste, Ralph DiGia, Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, Roy Finch and Sid Lens, when he was in town, and sometimes Paul Goodman or Barbara Deming. No college seminar could duplicate the education I got from the often sharp exchanges within this group during a period of great political and racial upheaval. On most issues I came down on the Muste/Rustin side, which was essentially the Marxist view. (Although on the issue of the Sputnik, I shared Paul Goodman's excitement and felt Muste was out of touch-how long ago October 1957 seems now!). But with all the members of that remarkable board I shared the profound pacifist perception that the means become the end, we make the path by walking. In the words of the late Dwight MacDonald in his response to the totalitarian willingness to sacrifice generations for a future utopia: "The root is man [sic], here and not there, now and not then."

Fourth, despite the end of the Cold War, war is still here, in the range of terrible wars that have raged or do rage in Europe (Bosnia, Kosova, Chechnya), in Africa, in Asia (India/Pakistan, Cambodia, East Timor), and in the Gulf (the endless war of sanctions against Iraq, whose victims are the weak, the children, the old). Wars that have taken hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of lives. Wars armed by the "First World countries," primarily our own, supported by our foreign bases. I endorse the efforts to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons-which will otherwise eventually be used. But any program that limits itself to nuclear disarmament only makes the world safe for control by the United States through conventional arms. Nothing less than comprehensive and total conventional disarmament is a goal worth our time and effort.

Marx and Gandhi
Fifth, while it would take a very long article or a short book to explain it, let me not depart without saying that while I never found the perfect formula to blend Marx and Gandhi, I have, long before I came to WRL, been both a badly read Marxist and a Gandhian pacifist (thanks in large part to the enduring influence of A.J. Muste-I am happy if called one of his lieutenants).When I was a student on the West Coast working in the Fellowship of Reconciliation youth group, one young pacifist complained bitterly that I attended pacifist meetings with a volume of Marx under my arm and attended socialist meetings carrying a volume of Gandhi. There was some truth to that. Socialists don't need to hear about Marx, and pacifists don't need to hear about Gandhi-rather the reverse in both cases.

Many times I've been asked how I could be both a Marxist and a pacifist (sometimes asked this by socialists, sometimes by pacifists). My answer has been that I didn't see how one could be one without being the other. (I'm not talking about Marxism-Leninism, which is a different kettle of fish and is, I feel, incompatible with pacifism). If as Marxists we understand that each of us is shaped by time and place, by class and race, in short, by our material and cultural environment, then how can we hate the individual who has been wounded or destroyed or corrupted by this-the Gestapo officer, the KGB or CIA agent, a man like New York's Mayor Giuliani? Yet if our beliefs cause us to identify with the oppressed, the exploited, the imprisoned, how can we defend them without in the process killing our brothers and sisters who have been corrupted? Only by nonviolence, which demands a greater courage than I have, and certainly a greater courage than guns.

Both Marxism and Gandhianism, if explored for their insights rather than in the foolish belief that either of them is a science, offer up a sense of liberation, of being able to help shape our history rather than being passively acted upon by history. Radicalism permits us to realize the future is evitable. Each of us can help determine the shape of that future. Where Marxism may be strong on analysis, it is a Gandhian insight that each of us must take personal responsibility, that each of us is open to personal change. There is a point of existential tension between the "determinism" of which Marxists are sometimes guilty and the need for individual truth and responsibility of Gandhi's thought.

If one truly understands how deeply a child is affected by his or her material and psychological circumstances, then how can we accept poverty, lack of medical care, terrible schools? How can one hold young criminals fully responsible if we wait until the moment of their arrest to be concerned with them? Is not poverty itself a crime? How can we fail to see the roots of fascism in the alienation of workers not only from the means of production, but from any sense of control over their own lives? I remember Bayard Rustin once saying to me that nothing except a revolution would really solve the problem of race in America. I extend his comment to apply to the other issues mentioned here, and not for the idiotically simplistic thought that a revolution will change everything, but because the process of a social revolution empowers people, shifting their attention from small issues to greater ones, as Gandhi succeeded in doing in India and King did in the U.S. South.

Certainly pacifists are weak on the need to struggle for power-not power over others, but power over our own lives. We need a movement that can change the location of power, decentralize and democratize it, and above all else, bring about social ownership and democratic control of the basic means of production. In the words of the poet Kenneth Patchen, "no man can own what belongs to all." Individual resistance is not enough. That struggle for change and transformation, that link between personal resistance and membership in a broader humanity, was summed up in the statement to the court by Eugene Victor Debs, as radical now as it was when it was uttered in a court in 1918: "Where there is a working class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free."

David McReynolds was on the staff of War Resisters League from 1960 until his retirement at the end of last year.

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Last updated June 17, 1999.