Presentation by Meghna Chandra at a discussion of the book "The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements"
I am speaking today not as an author, but as an Occupier who stumbled through the events of this book as a 19 year old. Like many of you, I was a member of the Occupy movement. The essays have made me think back to those times, and reflect on what it meant to be a part of a Great Refusal that has had reverberations as far as Larry Krasner’s victory as District attorney.
This book makes me think about what we did right in building a movement that popularized the idea of the 1% vs. the 99%, what we did wrong in not becoming more organically connected to and rooted in working people, especially the black working people who have built this city, and how we can develop ourselves so we can continue what we started.
Andy Lamas, who has been my mentor since before the Occupy days, asked me to speak about Angela Davis’s foreword to this book and connect it to my practice today.
I met Angela in October 2011 at the Critical Refusals Marcuse Conference. As a young activist, I admired Angela because she embodied the revolutionary imperative to work through contradictions to model a new type of human being for a liberated world. She studied in Europe but used her training to theorize the black experience for its revolutionary potential. She studied complex thinkers but could translate them into the language of every day people. She lived in American empire, but was a member of the Communist Party that organized in solidarity anti-imperialist struggles all over the world. She was a black woman but she used her experiences to speak to a universal human struggle. She is a legendary elder who made enormous sacrifices, but she believed in young people’s ability to develop so they could chart a new path forward. She broke down walls between thinker and doer, academic and revolutionary, and she dedicated herself to scholarship and action in the service of liberation.
In her foreword, Angela links Herbert Marcuse’s Great Refusal to the Black Radical tradition. “We use the term Black Radical Tradition to associate the activist and scholarly work of the current moment with the anti-capitalist analyses and radical demands of what progressive historians call the long Black Freedom Movement. If the Great Refusal entails principled opposition to injustice and repression, then the Black Radical Tradition- a tradition that emanates from the theories and practices of Black liberation in the Americas--can certainly be described as a salient historical manifestation of the Great Refusal. This tradition has been embraced not only by people of African descent but also by those who eschew assimilation into oppressive structures and support the liberation of all people” (viii)
As a Occupier, the black radical tradition resonated with me because of its optimism and its humanism. It offered an analysis of American capitalism that showed how the working class was divided by race, and how white labor weakened itself by choosing whiteness over class unity. It believes in and is rooted in working class black people, but believed in the unity of all people. It was rooted in the community in the collective, rather than the individual. It could link the fight against empire and the oppression of black people, and show humanity a new way forward away from the nihilism, self indulgence, and brutality of American capitalism.
Every Saturday at 9:30, I study the Black Radical Tradition with the black community and elders who have lived through revolutionary struggle in North Philadelphia at the Saturday Free School for Black Philosophy and Liberation. We read thinkers like Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mao, but we are rooted in WEB Dubois and James Baldwin. We believe in the failure of universities to produce knowledge that is accountable to working people, and we put our ideas to test with working people.
In her foreword, Angela asks in her introduction a question that is very important to me: “So what does radical mean-- aside from taking things at their root? It means opposition to racism--in the tradition of Ida B Wells. It means anti-capitalism--in the tradition of Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson. It means resistance to settler colonialism--in the tradition of Osceola. It means dedication to working-class struggles--in the tradition of Lucy Gonzales Parsons, Henry Winston, and Hosea Hudson. It means linking art and struggle--in the tradition of Max Roach and Nina Simone. It means an integrative analysis--in the tradition of the Combahee River Collective and Audre Lorde. And since traditions are never only about the past, we can say that the Black Radical Tradition encompasses CeCe Mac Donald and the struggle for the rights of trans prisoners. It means acknowledging disability, challenging heteropatriarchy, and promoting gender diversity beyond the gender binary…”
As a student of the Black Radical Tradition, I question the way she formulates what is radical. Is radical about sounding radical? What does “acknowledging disability, challenging heteropatriarchy, and promoting gender diversity beyond the gender binary” mean to working people? What does radical mean?
As an organizer with Desis United for Humanity, we have been trying for a year to build relationships with the South Asian community in Upper Darby, because the Black Radical Tradition teaches us that change happens on a community level. When we started, we came to the community with preconceived notions about what is radical and what is not, but had them turned on our heads.
We have been working closely with a community member to build up our workers center and grow our organization. We mention that we study with the Saturday Free School, he was at first skeptical.
One of the community members we are building with said, “Ideas don’t mean anything. I don’t have time for that. The community is not going to care about ideas, they’re going to care about how you can help them. I’m not with an organization, I’m with the community. I’m interested in helping the community.”
I had to think a lot about his words. Was he a product of American anti-intellectualism? Or was he reacting to the way “radical ideas” have been formulated and practiced--a luxury for the privileged that has no bearing on making the lives of ordinary people better? What did my ideas about radical education mean if I couldn’t even connect with him?
I replied that I agreed with him that ideas for the sake of ideas are meaningless. But that without understanding why things are the way they are, we cannot change them. There’s a reason why this community, and all communities don’t have healthcare, jobs for all, and free quality education. Once we understand the reason, we can fight for something new, rather than continuing a cycle of the same.
He agreed, but disagreed that things could ever change. We had a conversation about the power of organizing, the history of union density and the wage, union bureaucracy and corporate control, and democratic control of society. We asked each other questions about what we thought. More than anything else, we built a trust with each other, that together, we would find the answer of how to understand the world to move forward.
I would like to return to Angela Davis from Women, Race and Class in which she scientifically critiques white feminism. “The enormous space that work occupies in Black women's lives today follows a pattern established during the very earliest days of slavery. As slaves, compulsory labor overshadowed every other aspect of women's existence. It would seem, therefore, that the starting point for any exploration of Black women's lives under slavery would be an appraisal of their role as workers.”
If we want to change the world as Occupiers, we have to scientifically understand our situation and link it to people’s life worlds. We have to be able to be in dialogue with working people and translate our ideas to everyday people so they become a force in the world.
As Doctor Monteiro said in his article the Bourgeoisification of Negro Intellectuals and Other Problems of the 21st Century “Ideas and art are not personal possessions; they are products of struggle and hold value to the extent that they become instruments of freedom. The intellectual, especially the most gifted, should be guided by the idea, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.”
If we want to build a movement of the 99%, we have take seriously the imperative of the Black Radical Tradition to believe in people and engage with them, and that we have a theory of refusal that is rooted in and accountable to everyday people. Otherwise, our refusal will be an academic paper, rather than a world transformative movement.