Along with many people who are concerned about the unfolding of present-day events, I frequently find myself in the company of those who have been active in progressive political parties and organizations. Many of them have yet to recover from the shock they received with the fall of “real socialism.” Today, all over the world, activists by the hundreds of thousands are choosing to withdraw into the concerns of their daily lives, making it understood with this attitude that they believe their old ideals have been foreclosed. What for us represented simply one more episode in the disintegration of centralized structures—indeed something anticipated for over two decades—came for them as an unexpected catastrophe.
Yet this is not the time for everyone to simply drop out of sight, because as the current political form dissolves this leaves a disparity of forces that is opening the way for a system that is monstrous in both its conduct and its direction.
A couple of years ago I attended a rally where older workers, working mothers with their children, and small groups of young people raised their clenched fists together as they sang the words to their anthem in unison. Their banners were waving as the echoes of their glorious calls to struggle rolled across the scene. And upon seeing this I thought of just how much good will, risk, tragedy, and striving, all moved by heartfelt convictions, had been lost along a road leading to the absurd negation of any possibilities of transformation.
How much I would have liked to accompany that moving scene with a song to the ideals of old militants—those who, giving no thought to the outcome, remained steadfast in their combative pride. And all of this gave rise in me to strongly mixed feelings, and today at a distance I ask myself: What has happened to the many good people who struggled in solidarity for something greater than their own immediate interests, for what they believed would be the best of worlds? I am thinking not only of those who were members of more or less institutionalized political parties, but of all those who chose to place their lives at the service of a cause they believed was just. And, of course, one cannot take their measure solely by cataloguing their errors or by classifying them as the exponents of a particular political philosophy. Today it is imperative to redeem human courage, inspiring people’s ideals in a new and possible direction.
In reading over the first part of this letter, I must apologize to those who, not having participated in those movements and activities, may feel removed from such themes. At the same time I would point out to them the importance of keeping these matters in mind—matters that bear so directly on the values and ideals of human actions. These, then, are the themes with which today’s letter deals, perhaps a bit firmly, but with the intention of shaking off the defeatism that seems to have taken such deep hold in the militant soul.
1. The Most Important Issue: To Know If One Wants to Live, and in What Conditions
Today, millions of people struggle simply to subsist, not knowing whether tomorrow they will be able to surmount hunger, disease, and neglect. Their needs are so dire that whatever they undertake to escape their problems only further complicates their lives. Are they to do nothing then, and remain in a state that is really only one of postponed suicide? Are they to attempt desperate measures? What sort of activity, what risk, what prospect are they prepared to face? What are those, who for economic, societal, or simply personal reasons find themselves in extreme situations, supposed to do? Always, the most important question is to know if one wants to live, and to decide in what conditions to do so.
2. Human Liberty: Source of All Meaning
Even those who do not find themselves in extreme situations are today questioning whether their present circumstances can form a way of life in the future. Even those who prefer not to think about their situation, or who turn this responsibility over to others, are still choosing a way of life. Thus, freedom of choice is a reality from the moment we question our lives and reflect on the conditions in which we want to live. Whether we then struggle for that future or not, this freedom of choice still exists. And it is only this fact of human life that can justify the existence of values, of morality, of law, and of obligation, just as it also allows us to refute all politics, all forms of social organization, and every way of life that is imposed without justifying its meaning, without substantiating just how it is at the service of the concrete human being in today’s world. Any morality, any law, or any social constitution that begins from principles supposedly superior to human life places that life in a situation of contingency, denying its essential meaning of liberty.
3. Intention: Orientor of Action
We are born into conditions that we have not chosen. We have not chosen our body, our natural environment, our society, or the space and time we have either the luck or the misfortune to occupy. Subsequently, there is a point at which we acquire the liberty to commit suicide or to go on living and to reflect on the conditions in which we want to live. We can rebel against a tyranny and be victorious or die in the attempt; we can struggle for a cause or facilitate oppression; we can accept a model of life or try to change it. And we can also make a mistake in our choice.
We may believe that by accepting everything that is established in a society, no matter how perverse those things are, we are becoming more perfectly adapted, and this is the path to better conditions in our lives. Or instead, we may think that by questioning everything, without distinguishing between what is of primary importance and what is secondary, we will expand the range of our liberty—when in reality our power to change things diminishes in a phenomenon in which we become increasingly less adapted. Finally, we can give priority to actions that extend our influence in a new direction, one that is possible for us, one that gives meaning to our existence. In every case, we will have to choose among conditions, among needs, and we will do so according to our intention and the vision of life that we propose for ourselves. Of course, our intention itself can continue to change along this path that is so subject to accidents.
4. What Should We Do with Our Lives?
We cannot ask ourselves this question in the abstract, but only in relation to the concrete situation in which we live and the conditions in which we wish to live. For now, we exist in a particular society and in relationship with other people, and our destinies are interwoven with their destinies. If we believe that at present everything is fine and what we can glimpse of the future seems satisfactory for us as individuals and for society, then we need only forge ahead, perhaps with some minor reforms, but certainly in the same direction. If, on the contrary, we think that we live in a violent, unjust society that is filled with inequity and assailed by unremitting crises related to the dizzying changes in the world, then we will reflect at once on the need for profound personal and social transformations.
Affected by the global crisis now sweeping us along, we lose stable references, and planning our futures becomes ever more difficult. More serious still is our inability to carry out coherent action to change this situation, both because the familiar forms of struggle have failed and also because the unraveling of the social fabric makes it increasingly difficult to mobilize significant numbers of people.
Of course, the same thing happens to us that happens to everyone who is experiencing the present difficulties and intuitively grasps just how much conditions are deteriorating. No one can or would want to undertake actions that are destined to fail, and yet no one can simply let things go on this way.
And the worst of it is that by our inaction we open the door to even greater inequity and injustice. Forms of discrimination and abuse long thought overcome are resurfacing with greater virulence than ever. Given such disorientation and crisis, what is to prevent new monstrosities from acting as social references, forms whose representatives will not only state but also enforce what each and every one of us is to do? Such primitive occurrences are becoming more possible than ever because today their simplistic message spreads so easily, reaching those who find themselves in extreme situations.
More and more people, whether well or poorly informed, have come to recognize that by now we are in a situation of crisis that can be characterized in approximately the terms used here. Nevertheless, the option they are following with increasing single-mindedness is to focus only on their own lives, ignoring the difficulties of others and everything that is taking place in the social context around them.
Many times, while we applaud the objections that others make against the prevailing system, we ourselves are very far from trying to do anything that could actually change those conditions. We know that today democracy is merely formal, responding as it does to the dictates of the economic interests. Yet, subject to the blackmail of either supporting that system or facilitating the rise of dictatorships, we salve our consciences with ridiculous votes for major parties.
It is not reasonable to believe that the act of voting for and asking others to vote for small parties can constitute a phenomenon of interest in the future, nor will support for forming labor organizations outside the established frameworks be an important factor in bringing people together.
And because we view such work as too limited, we reject those efforts that are rooted in neighborhoods, in communities, in urban areas, and in our immediate environments. It is clear, however, that this is where the rebuilding of the social fabric will begin when the crisis finally overtakes the centralized structures.
Yet instead of keeping our ears attuned to the undercurrent of the people’s demands for change, we prefer to focus on the superficial game of the powerful elites, the famous, the formers of opinion. We object to the actions of the mass media controlled by economic interests, instead of dedicating ourselves to exercising influence in the smaller media and taking advantage of the many openings for social communication. And if we continue to work as militants within some progressive political organization, our usual tactic is to try to dredge up some incoherent character who can get us “press,” some famous personality who can represent our current of thought because he is more or less palatable to the news media of the prevailing system.
Basically, all of this happens to us because we believe we are defeated and that we have no other recourse than to nurse our growing bitterness in silence. And we call this defeat “dedicating ourselves to our own lives.” Meanwhile, “our own lives” accumulate contradictions as we lose touch with the meaning of and any capacity to choose the conditions in which we want to live. Eventually, we cannot even conceive of the possibility of a great movement for change that can serve as a reference, drawing together the most positive factors in society. And of course our previous disappointments keep us from acting as protagonists in this process of transformation.
5. Moral Consciousness and Short-Term Interests
We have to choose the conditions in which we want to live. If we go against our life project we will not escape from contradiction, which will leave us at the mercy of a long chain of accidents. In taking that direction, what brake can we then apply to slow the cascading events of our lives? Only that of our short-term interests. In our resulting lives of expediency, then, we can imagine extreme situations of every kind befalling us, from which in our rush to escape we will sacrifice every value and all meaning, because our sole focus has become our own immediate benefit.
To avoid such difficulties, we shun any commitment that could draw us toward extreme situations, but of course events themselves will necessarily put us in positions that we have not chosen. It does not require any special brilliance to understand what is sure to happen with those closest to us should they adopt this same position—if they pursue identical benefits, will they not then be in opposition to us? And what is to prevent our whole society from following this same path? In this situation of arbitrariness without limits, naked power will overwhelm everything before it. Where it encounters resistance it will do so with overt violence. Where it doesn’t, it will make do with persuasion that relies for justification on untenable values, to which we will all have to submit, even while in the depths of our hearts we experience how meaningless life has become. And if this comes to pass it will mark the triumph of the Earth’s dehumanization.
To choose a life project within imposed conditions is far from being a simple animal reflex. On the contrary, it is the essential characteristic of the human being. And if we eliminate this quality—which defines the human being—we block human history, and we can expect only the advance of destruction at every step. If we give up the right to choose a life project and an ideal of society, we will find ourselves left with only caricatures of law, values, and meaning. Under such circumstances, what will we then uphold in the face of the neurosis and upheaval we are beginning to experience all around us?
Each of us will have to see what to do with his or her own life, but all of us will have to bear in mind as well that our actions extend beyond ourselves, and this is so regardless of whether our capacity to influence others is great or small. The choice between unifying actions—those with meaning—or contradictory actions dictated by immediacy, is inescapable in every situation in which the direction of life is at issue.
6. Sacrificing One’s Objectives for Circumstantial Success: Some Habitual Errors
Everyone who is committed to collective action, every person who works with others toward meaningful social objectives, needs to be clear on the numerous errors that have in the past brought ruin upon the best of causes. Ridiculous Machiavellian schemes, personality clashes placed above mutually agreed upon goals, and authoritarian behavior of every stripe fill volumes of history books, as well as our personal memories.
By what right does anyone use a doctrine, a plan of action, a human organization, only to push aside the priorities they themselves have expressed? What right do we have to propose to others an objective and a destiny, only to later place as the primary value some supposed success or need of the moment? What would be the difference between this and the pragmatism we say we repudiate? In following that path, how could there be any coherence among what one thinks, feels, and does?
In every age, “instrumentalists” have committed the same moral fraud of presenting others with an inspiring image of the future, gaining for themselves an immediate image of success. In then sacrificing the intention agreed upon, however, they open the door to negotiating every sort of betrayal with the faction against which they claim to struggle. And this indecency is then justified by some supposed “need” concealed within the initial proposal.
It should be clear that I am not speaking of those changes of conditions and tactics in which all involved understand the connection to the agreed-upon objectives that mobilized them in the first place. Nor am I referring to those mistakes in evaluating situations that can occur in the process of carrying out concrete actions. These observations apply to the immorality that distorts intentions and against which it is indispensable to be alert. It is important to be attentive to ourselves as activists, and also to explain this to others so they understand beforehand that if they break their commitments this will leave our hands as free as theirs.
There is, of course, a whole range of clever tricks for using other people, and there is no way to catalogue them all. Nor will we become “moral censors,” because it is clear that behind this attitude lies a repressive form of consciousness. The objective of such people is to sabotage any action they do not control, immobilizing their companions in struggle with mutual mistrust. And when they smuggle in as contraband from another field supposed values by which they judge our actions, it is good to remember that it is their “morality” that is in question, and that it is not the same as ours. Why, then, would such people choose to be with us?
Finally, it is important to be aware of a less-than-honest gradualism that is used to manipulate situations until in reality they come to oppose their stated objectives. It is in this position that we find all those who accompany us with motives different from those they express. Their mental direction is twisted from the beginning and awaits only the opportunity to manifest itself. In the meantime, they gradually expand their use of codes that, whether overtly or covertly, embody a system of double-speak. This attitude is almost always found among those people who, in the name of some militant organization, disorient activists of good faith, while at the same time they endeavor to make responsibility for their abuses fall on the shoulders of authentic militants.
It is not my intention here to dwell on the familiar “internal problems” that affect every human organization, but it does seem useful to mention the opportunistic root that underlies this behavior, which involves introducing a mobilizing image of the future, gaining for oneself an immediate image of success.
7. The Kingdom of the Secondary
Present circumstances are such that accusers of every stripe and description adopt a prosecutorial tone and demand explanations from us, acting as though it is we who must prove our innocence to them. What is noteworthy is that their basic tactic lies in exalting all that is secondary, and as a consequence obscuring the primary questions.
This attitude recalls the practice of democracy within companies. Employees may discuss, for example, whether the desks in the office should be nearer to or farther from the windows and whether the office should be furnished with flowers or painted in pleasant colors, none of which is in itself bad. Then they vote, and the majority decides the fate of the furniture and the color of the paint, and this is also not in itself bad. But when it comes time to discuss and propose taking a vote on questions of management and operation, a terrified silence falls… and instantly any idea of democracy is frozen, because in reality we are dwelling in the kingdom of the secondary.
Nothing different can be expected from the “prosecutors” of the system. Suddenly some journalist will take on that role—making a preference some of us may have for certain types of food, for example, seem somehow suspicious, or demanding that we “take a stand” on today’s burning questions of sports, astrology, and the catechism. Of course, they are never lacking for some clumsy accusation to which it is assumed we must respond, and in superficially setting the context they bandy about words charged with double meanings as they manipulate contradictory images.
What is important to remember is that those who choose to locate themselves in a faction opposed to us have every right to have us explain to them why they are in no condition to judge us and why we, on the other hand, are fully justified in judging them. They need to realize that it is they who must defend their position against our objections. Of course, whether this can actually take place in any given instance depends on certain conditions being present and the individual skill of the contenders, but it is always exasperating to see people who have every right to take the initiative bow their heads before such incoherence.
It is pathetic, too, to watch various leaders on the television screen as they mouth their witticisms and dance like trained bears with the host of the program, or to see them submitting to every sort of humiliation just to make the front pages. Yet as they watch these wonderful examples, many well-intentioned people fail to realize the extent to which the message they are viewing has been deformed or diluted by the time the mass media release it to the public at large.
These comments have focused on facets of the kingdom of the secondary that operate by displacing attention from the fundamental issues, with the result that what reaches the public—supposedly to enlighten them—is really disinformation. Curiously, a great many progressive people are taken in by this trap, failing to understand very clearly just how their receiving this abundance of apparent “news” in practice leaves them more bewildered than accurately informed.
Finally, this is no time to let languish in the camp of the opposition some positions that in reality we need to defend. Were we to abandon these positions, anyone could reduce our position to mere frivolity simply by affirming that he, too, is for example a “humanist” because he is concerned about what is human; that he is “non-violent” because he deplores war; that he is against discrimination because he has a black friend or a communist friend; that he is an environmentalist because he agrees that we need to protect seals and trees. If pressed, however, such people will be incapable of backing up in any depth the superficial things they say—and the mask will slip, showing their real face, which is anti-humanist, violent, discriminatory, and predatory.
While the previous commentaries on these expressions of the kingdom of the secondary do not really contribute anything new, it is nonetheless worthwhile from time to time to alert those naive activists who, in trying to communicate their ideas, have yet to realize just how strange is this kingdom of the secondary in which they have been interned.
I hope that you will be able to overlook any discomfort experienced on reading a letter perhaps so little related to your own problems and interests, and I trust that in the next letter we will be able to go on to more pleasant things.
With this letter I send my warmest regards,
June 4, 1992