Two Things We Should Remember about Mandela and Seeger
by Matt Meyer
Whether one talks of and worships heroes who we can only hope to emulate, or of the more literal definition of a religious-based or computer-screen-based symbol to follow, the last weeks have not been kind to progressive icons. Death and dismemberment by mass media has caused the splashing of countless smiling images upon us, but blurred the messages which were central to the lives of dear Madiba and Pete.
If we are going to build vibrant, relevant future movements like the ones those two helped to generate for their times, we had best remember some of these central lessons gleaned from decades of lifelong commitment, growth, and struggle.
Here are just two lessons, common and central to both men, which are too often left way out of the central messaging being spread about their lives:
Both Mandela and Seeger were communists.
Understanding nuance, change, and the unfortunate sell-out nature of realpolitik is no doubt important, as is the significance of looking closely at failed policies for progressive change. This this brief piece, however, is not a call to examine what one close comrade of mine has called Mandela’s late-in-life tendency to be a “far-too-compliant and even at times corrupt tool of global capital.” Nor does this suggest that we should forget that at some time long ago, Seeger may have been an apologist for what another close comrade has called “the horrors of Stalinism.” We might later consider, as we work towards new paradigms and ideological fusions for a new century, the historic role of both “small-c” communism and “big-C” membership in formal and official Communist Parties (though both Mandela and Seeger were clearly at some point in their lives members in the highly unpopular and illegal Parties in their respective countries).
Today, the primary legacy for the current generation is this: not only were both of these now-iconized heroes willing to take up unpopular and illegal positions, but more so were willing and interested in doing so because of their deep understanding of the basic horrors of capitalism — namely that a system centered around the exploitation of all species and the planet itself for the personal gain of a tiny few is evil at its core. The point is that both men, organization-builders with broad wisdom and specific strategic allocations of their visions, considered the teachings of Marx and other radical thinkers central to their work and lives.
This broad lesson about economics and the building of sustainable future movements seems significant as we are confronted with perpetual calls to give up any hope (or mainly plans) for radical social change; we must fight against the tendency that minor or liberal reform is the best we can hope for. This point links to the second tie between two revolutionary men who embody so much of the best of the 20th century:
Both Mandela and Seeger understood the power of revolutionary nonviolence.
For these two, like a growing number of others across the earth, the doctrinal questions of philosophy versus tactic were very much secondary to the urgent need for effective strategies for widespread transformation. Evaluating the military campaigns of the African National Congress in her book Umkhonto Wesizwe, Mandela Metropolitan University Professor Janet Cherry noted that Mandela’s wisdom was rooted in his understanding that the mass unarmed civil movement and a negotiated settlement was not only possible but also preferable to further years of war and a continuation of apartheid, possibly indefinitely. The end of apartheid, she writes, was “the outcome of a realistic assessment of the political context: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the withdrawal of South African forces from Angola, the independence of Namibia, the pressure on the government from South African businessmen to keep the economy running, and the mounting cost in human life of the continually escalating armed struggle.”
Seeger, supporter of countless revolutions across the globe without ever seeing the kind of “regime change” in his own country which he spent his life agitating for, summarized a clear position in one of his last recorded tracks:
“You know the agricultural revolution took thousands of years,” rustled the gentle but persuasive voice. “The industrial revolution took hundreds of years. Now, the information revolution is only taking decades. But – if we use the brains God gave us – we will have the revolution that must come if there is going to be a human race here next century.
“I call it the nonviolent revolution,” Seeger asserted. “Some may call it the love revolution, or the ‘willingness to communicate’ revolution. Who knows?”
The exact words, names, titles or melodies, the perfect speeches or songs, were not most important to our 20th century icons. Finding one precise way to build the organizations which will help lead to revolutionary change has never been a productive path. After ninety years of reflecting on how to change the world, perhaps the man so many felt fine just calling “Pete” put it best:
“If we learn to grow not in size but grow in generosity, or grow in a sense of humor, or grow in the ability to talk with people we disagree with, we will still have great grandchildren here by the time the 22nd century comes along.”
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.