The (forgotten) radical politics of liberal idols


So another year, another day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is perhaps the single most warped figure in contemporary America, where his legacy is used to defend the entire spectrum of opinion- anything from social services to Gun Appreciation Day. What is clear each year when his life and work is celebrated is how much of King’s radical politics have been sanded off. Indeed, “there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism”. Here’s one of many relevant quotes by King on economic justice:

“There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” (source).

This phenomenon is entrenched to the point where it now has a term- “Santa Clausification“. This is the most public case of the sanitizing of important modern figures, but it’s far from the last. I’m here to argue that the most guilty party are liberals, in particular white liberals, who celebrate figures like King but omit the philosophy that make their dreams and ideas so powerful.

Let’s just stick with people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize like King. How about Nelson Mandela:

“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro … Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny … There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” (source)

That was from a speech made in 1991.

Mandela held anti-imperialist ideas that had much in common with Castro and Guevara. While his long imprisonment and his role in ending apartheid is appreciated, the radical politics that led him to attack the racist system are ignored.


What about the Dalai Lama? He speaks to packed crowds all over the world, and he’s very popular in my Unitarian Universalist church, and among American liberals and progressives. He’s more complicated than just the spiritual messages and peaceful ideology-

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has spoken openly of his Marxist politics, once stating “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (source).

And finally, the most recent Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has in her short lifetime been appropriated by Westerners, who use her near-death experience to justify military action against Muslim countries and paint places like Pakistan as impoverished, backward, and in desperate need of Western intervention. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

But Malala tries as much as possible to distance herself from the actions being taken in her name. She states that drone strikes are “fueling terrorism”, and sent a message to a socialist conference in Pakistan that reads in part:

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation. (source)

So four Peace Prize winners, four political radicals, and four figures who are often softened or used selectively. This is disheartening, because their awards and legacy (living or dead) were meant to get the whole world to learn from their example. Even if you are not a socialist or have radical politics of any strain, to celebrate these people without those aspects is to see the world through a warped glass.

We talk so much about Dr. King’s dream, about what kind of society he wanted, with racial and social equality. But that dream, that society, is not a capitalist society. An illusion is that his dream is achievable with the current economic and social system in place, when it’s clear that the issues of imperialism and militarism he spoke of in the last three years of his life are still rampant, and connected to a lack of radical political solutions.

Besides a lack of depth, these four figures, all non-white and from three different continents, have been skewed by a media and consumer culture that mainly caters to white Westerners. The Dalai Lama is glued to a whole meditation and enlightenment industry that has popped up in America. But if he speaks of peace and love in the world, he is speaking of a world crafted by socialism. Often he is portrayed as an exotic wise man coming from the East to bring wisdom. I think some of his wisdom is being selectively ignored.

I don’t mean to demonize the modern American liberalism, nor say for a moment that integrating other cultures into your own religious practice is bad. Unitarian Universalism as a faith is all the more stronger for being open to incorporation. There is a danger, though, of placing radical and unorthodox world figures into a conventional mindset. Radicalism gives the ideas and aspirations of these four, and many others in a similar situation, weight and makes them something more attainable. King’s dream of a racially and socially equal country without true economic democracy is a fantasy. We can get filled up with the hope that these individuals espouse, but not stay around for the heavier course of methods and practice.

You don’t have to believe the radical politics, but you have to engage with them. Otherwise you’re wasting a great part of their characters, and leaving wisdom on the table.

Dismantling dictatorships, creating civilian power

The principle is simple. Dictators require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain their sources of political power.

All of these sources, however, depend on the acceptance of the regime, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not guaranteed.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 18-19

Such is the thesis of Gene Sharp, the preeminent scholar of non-violent forms of struggle. While he’s created several exhaustive volumes analyzing case studies and going into the theory of violence versus non-violence in creating social and political change, his most well-known work is a 93-page pamphlet. From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in 1993 on the request of Karen rebels in Burma. When Sharp visited them, he saw a group  who had tried violence to liberate their people, but had failed. They wanted to try new tactics, but did not have a guide to doing so.

The work is a generic strategy to overthrowing dictatorships, and includes a list of 198 forms of non-violent action. In the twenty years since, it has been translated into 31 additional languages, and has seen use by activists on every continent except Antarctica.

Sharp’s guidebook to non-violent revolution

This post is not here to glamorize Sharp- who this year, for the third time, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather, it’s to delve a bit into what his statement means. About the nature of power.

There is an idea of fighting strength with strength- if you want to defeat a dictatorial regime, you need as many people, dollars, soldiers. Sharp is emphasizing that there is within a state only one source of power and strength. It flows between people, civil society, governments, and the military. But power is not an island, and authority depends on people accepting its legitimacy.

Even in the face of a terrible regime like the SED in East Germany, governments cannot intimidate a group of people who united and decide to put their fear aside. The feeling of fear is a source of control by authoritarian groups- and when fear fails to keep people in line the regime is thrown into crisis. The Peaceful Revolution, a movement that is virtually ignored in American history courses, is an example. The sheer volume of people in open defiance paralyzed the regime, and led to police and the army not using force against the protestors (who peaked at 500,000 in East Berlin alone). The dreaded Stasi  attempted to provoke a violent activist response, but were unsuccessful. A commitment to non-violent ideals kept the Peaceful Revolution from being a violent massacre. While the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not spontaneously happen. It was created by a population that had castrated the Communist leadership. And they had done so without guns. It was psychological and social. Fear flowed from people back to the government.

When you look at revolutions that have produced long-lasting democratic states, straight-up violent takeover is not a common feature. The changes in Poland were preceded by years of action by Solidarity. The Gdańsk strikes led to a legal, independent trade union, that at its peak included 1/3 of the working population (for reference, that would be a union with 80,000,000 members in the US, about seven times that of the AFL-CIO). Non-violent action had created civil society where none had existed before. And over time, it led to a democratic Poland. Violent opposition legitimates violence. It splits social and political groups, and clouds the situation for outside groups who don’t want to support what is simply a different evil.

Watching the stalemate and bloodshed in Syria, and the second, worrying military coup play out in Egypt (and the deeply fragmented post-Gaddafi Libya) the need for strong non-violent tactics and the creation of a civilian and democratic power base becomes clear. It’s not easy, and it certainly isn’t always intuitive, but the more you study the issue the more benefits pop up.