Letters from Young Activists


The Future Is Now

Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out
Edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow.
2005, Nation Books; 256 pages. $14.95, paperback

You'd better listen up. And quick,” write Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow in their editors' introduction to Letters from Young Activists.

Many readers-especially those of us past or long past 40-will be tempted to write this challenge off as mere bravado. We'd be better served to take it to heart and plunge in the pages that follow.

From the opening section, "Letters to the Previous Generations," through "Letters to the Movements and to the Next Generations," 50 different voices speak their passionate piece. Some address coming-of-age issues particular to younger activists, but most tackle issues that face radicals of all ages from their unique generational vantage point.

There are penetrating indictments of oppression and vivid stories of individual experience. Unhealthy dynamics within social movements get a lot of attention. Dilemmas of generational continuity and discontinuity, and questions about how to learn political lessons and pass them on loom large. Tones range from indignation to mourning. Letters with a tight focus and rigorous argument co-exist with meandering tales that convey a mood or, occasionally, lose their way.

There are rough spots: a few too many predictable passages and trite formulas. But these are overshadowed by fresh insights and vivid storytelling. The open, self-revealing character of many letters is especially striking. Several make readers feel that we are listening in to a raw conversation, with no experience too painful to share and no idea too heretical to consider.

Thinking in new ways
Different readers will be most affected by different letters. Here are five that especially provoked me to think in a new way or travel to new emotional territory:

"Dearest Hip Hop," in which Walidah Imarisha and Not4Prophet poetically lay out their reaction to changes in their mad-loved "rebel without a pause."

"Dear Punk Rock Activism" by Andy Cornell: This letter offers a model for combining appreciation with critical and self-critical reflection.

"Dear Movement" from Kat Aaron: This writer allows us to listen in on her intimate wrestling match with "hope and frustration" and her challenge to prevailing orthodoxies in the anti-authoritarian political community.

Ashley Lucas' letter from Hamlin, TX, links personal experience and a broad analytic framework on prisons with a rare skill that does justice to both.

"To my future self, fifty years from now, aged 73": Michelle Kuo takes us on a journey from the small town of Helena, AK, to true philosophical depths-a blockbuster of wisdom.

Representative and not
The range of letter-writers in terms of race, nationality, gender, and sexuality is impressive. Diversity from other angles is more limited. Cultural workers and activists in the non-profit sector and in academia are over-represented; the large contingent of young organizers in the trade union, environmental, and environmental justice movements are under-represented. Anarchist and anti-authoritarian voices abound, but only one writer is identified as a member of a socialist group and no one writes as a Green. There is a striking absence of letters from young organizers who have thrown themselves into electoral battles through such dynamic formations as the League of Pissed-Off (Young) Voters (not even listed in the book's resource section), the exciting Black-Latino electoral alliances that have taken shape in important localities, third-party efforts, or local and state struggles around ballot propositions or progressive and left candidates.

Perhaps related to this one-sidedness, the overall package is long on process, dynamics, and tactics and short on strategies for assembling any kind of alliance or social bloc that can barge into national politics and advance empowerment of the oppressed.

Yet if these shortcomings are especially pronounced here, at bottom they reflect weaknesses of the U.S. left as a whole. And, as many letter-writers insist, they can only be effectively addressed by a true intergenerational effort. Such an effort is inconceivable without the central participation of the activists speaking here and those they represent, and without older activists learning everything we can from the messages these letters send.

In this light, the book's preface by former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn is a missed opportunity. Her piece is a powerful call to struggle and a well-crafted description of Letters' strengths. But in discussing the 1960s it glides over the tough questions posed by the very activists she praises. This was a chance for the best-known leader of one of the most controversial 1960s tendencies to address the challenge posed, for example, in "Dear Older Activists" by Chris Dixon: "I especially want to encourage you to be more open about your uncertainties, your mistakes and your struggles … . There aren't too many visible models of folks who are courageously and compassionately self-critical … willing to talk honestly, humbly, and directly about their mistakes and sources of confusion." Modeling that kind of engagement with the letter-writers would have been a wiser and more valuable choice.

After all, what Chris Dixon (and many other letter-writers in different language) demands is both their need and their due. From those of us who have gone before, they don't require only-or even mainly-to be cheered on, encouraged, or implored to keep the faith. They have commitment, energy, tenacity, and hope in overflowing measure. And they have the acumen to demand not just supporters, but active partners.

The responsibility of us older activists is to be as forthright, probing, and self-probing as the letter-writers in this book. We need to lay out our experience and our conclusions and our questions, realizing that we will not be the ones to control what the next generation makes of it all or finds useful in the mix. Letters from Young Activists should spur us on. In approaching this fine book, and in our relationship with young activists generally, one of the prescriptions that has helped so many of us through other transitions should be our guide:

Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Let go of the result.

Max Elbaum

Max Elbaum, active in antiwar and antiracist movements since the 1960s, is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso, 2002), a critical/self-critical history of the post-1960s "new communist movement."