A few of many strands in the struggle
for life with dignity: Palestine and Oaxaca,
and now Lebanon, and . . .

by G.S.  <george.salzman@umb.edu>
from July 11 to 27, 2006

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-07-27.htm

      The struggle of ordinary people to win lives of joy and fulfillment is of course going on everywhere where there is still some hope, wherever people’s hopes have not been utterly crushed. Always it is the relatively wealthy and privileged (or if not relatively wealthy at least relatively privileged) who, in order to maintain their differential status, want to extinguish the hope for a significant change in the status quo among the deprived and impoverished. Almost invariably it is a struggle between classes, and almost invariably the “lower class” suffers economic poverty. The culture of oppression, always strongly influenced by the dominant groups, tries to obscure that basic economic truth by maintaining that the “troubles”, the “disturbances” are due to other factors. For example, in the Israel-Palestine conflict Israeli propaganda promotes the false idea that Jews and Arabs are fundamentally, irrevocably different, and that Jews must be absolutely dominant in order to enjoy a secure and happy life. Racism and ethnic tribalism are obviously very useful, frequently employed tools for the dominant interests (jews-arabs, whites-blacks, whites-reds, etc.).

Where hope lives, even revolution is thinkable

      Oaxaca, sí; United States, no. Imagine, if you can, any place in the U.S. where the main, centrally located park of a major city could be occupied for over a month by a people’s movement intent on replacing the political government of that state by a statewide “Popular Assembly of the People”, and a multitude of popular assemblies in all the villages, towns and city neighborhoods throughout the state, all of them without any political party involvement. Beyond imagination in the U.S.A. today, isn’t it? But in Oaxaca that’s exactly what is going on, as this picture illustrates.

Teachers camped on and totally occupying the gazebo at the center of the zócalo. The banner wrapped around the central structure says All power to the people (in red), and underneath is the proclamation (in blue): "Government of the Oaxaca popular struggle will win", by a group (indistinct letters) of students of the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO in its Spanish initials). The banner at the right (with UABJO in blue) says "All help to the popular struggle (Apoyo total a la lucha popular)." Photo by Nancy Davies on July 7.
      About half of the 70,000 teachers of Oaxaca State, in Section 22 of the National Union of Teachers, had been occupying the zócalo and the surrounding 56 blocks of downtown Oaxaca since 22 May, about a week after Section 22 called a strike. On June 14, three and a half weeks later, the governor sent state police forces to destroy the encampment and drive the strikers out of the city center. After about five hours the police were driven off and the teachers and their allies reoccupied their encampment area. This picture shows the situation at the center about three and a half weeks after the battle.

      Immediately following the attack a massive tide of support for the teachers from multiple groups in civil society generated increased confidence that the governor would be forced out and a statewide system of popular government instituted. Ousting a hated governor, though not unimportant, has happened before in Oaxaca and would not be particularly radical, but the fundamental change in the structure of state government contemplated would be a truly revolutionary accomplishment. Although Oaxacans are by no means thinking of seceeding from the nation — Mexicans are by and large as narrowly nationalistic as people of other nationalities — the movement being spearheaded by the Asamblea Popular de Pueblo de Oaxaca (APPO), the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, is a direct challenge to the current ruling forces of Mexico.

      Why is the APPO, and the existence of asambleas populares (popular assemblies) in villages, towns, neighborhoods and barrios (sections) and colonias (suburban “colonies”) of cities a threat to the power structure of the centralized federal government and the rich and powerful interests it serves? Oaxaca would continue to have its representatives in the federal legislature in Mexico City, as do all the states, and would continue to participate in the government of Mexico. The threat lies in the possibility that the people of Oaxaca State will succeed in gaining control of their own mode of living, that they will become largely self-governing, able to decide for themselves the administrative needs they must meet in order to deal with their problems (education, health, poverty, exploitation by foreign corporations, biological despoilation, etc.), and to establish their own administrative units to address these needs. Growing autonomy of the people of Oaxaca, just like every movement towards increasing local autonomy, is a threat to centralized power structures.

      From the anarchist perspective, the desire to be in control of our own lives and our communities is a core characteristic of human nature, and thus common to all peoples: Palestinians, Zapatistas, Oaxacans, Basques, Catalonians, American Indians, and so on. And in all cases the centralized power structure tries to extinguish the hope nurtured by that inherent desire to be free of external control and exploitation. To put it in the vernacular, No one wants to be shit on. That’s human nature.

Oaxaca and The Great French Revolution

      The idea that the people of Oaxaca would, two centuries after The Great French Revolution (1789-1793), seize upon the long-ignored and largely forgotten example of large-scale popular self-organization, which was the motor force of the French people’s magnificent, though terrifyingly bloody struggle, had never crossed my mind until Nancy Davies realized what she was witnessing on the ground in Oaxaca and began writing about it in letters and in her reports to Narco News.[1]

      A sense of the political awakening inspired among the people of Oaxaca by the ongoing struggle can be glimpsed in a statement, “We are Constructing a Movement in Defense of Life” (Construyamos un Movimiento en Defensa de la Vida) by the Oaxacan woman Judith Cid Flores <judithcid@hotmail.com>, which concludes

      All, absolutely everyone of us, can do something to promote a more dignified life, one which appreciates really humane life and, for that, we must regain solidarity as a value based on individual human enrichment with importance to the community.

      We must organize ourselves in defense of life because it is life itself that one finds threatened by bad policies and bad governments in the service of the dominant classes. If this step is carried out we will be in a condition to discover original paths to prevent and defeat the different manifestations of the destruction of life. We will be transforming our society into a community that is sustained in solidarity, liberty and justice.

      All of us are constructing a social movement in defense of human rights, of social justice, of liberty and of life. This popular movement can be the beginning.[2]

      In his classic account, The Great French Revolution,[3] which he published in 1909, Peter Kropotkin emphasized the absolutely essential role of the peasantry throughout France in shaping and powering the struggle to end the monarchy and all the associated feudal trappings under which the downtrodden of that country had so long suffered.

Anarchism, from the roots of human nature

      Peter (Pyotr) Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921) was, I said in my last posting, someone “who you’ve just got to love”.[4] Born of Russian nobility of the highest rank,
brought up by “lower class” servants since his mother’s death when he was but three and a half, he wrote at age 57 of that terrifying childhood event in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist
      All who knew her loved her. The servants worshipped her memory. It was in her name that Madame Búrman took care of us, and in her name the Russian nurse bestowed upon us her love. While combing our hair, or signing us with the cross in our beds, Uliána would often say, “And your mamma must now look upon you from the skies, and shed tears on seeing you, poor orphans.”. . . How often, in some dark passage, the hand of a servant would touch Alexander or me with a caress; or a peasant woman, on meeting us in the fields, would ask, “Will you be as good as your mother was? She took compassion on us. You will, surely.” “Us” meant, of course, the serfs. I do not know what what would have become of us if we had not found in our house, among the serf servants, that atmosphere of love which children must have around them . . .[5]

      He was the truest and most admirable of class “traitors”. Joe Bageant once wrote me when he was reading Kropotkin’s Memoirs, “It’s like turning on the light in a dark room.” From his own intimate knowledge of the basic decency of the humble human beings — property owned by his father when Peter was but a child — and of the peasantry in Siberia as a young man, when he also learned that nothing good could be accomplished by the Russian state apparatus, even when sincere individuals in the government tried to make the system work, Kropotkin became a committed anarchist, which he remained throughout the rest of his life.

      But that wasn't all. He could not acquiesce to being mistreated. As a young student in the élite royal school, the corps of pages, he refused to accept harrassment and beatings that were at that time part of the way the sadists who ran the school instilled fear and obedience in the new, quite young students. He didn’t want to be, and wouldn’t accept being shit upon. Human nature helped make of Kropotin an anarchist, as it has so many of us, whether or not we have read the theoretical treatises in its favor.

Hope — in France, Oaxaca, Palestine and Lebanon

      Kropotkin asserts, in The Great French Revolution
Revolutions are never the result of despair, as is often believed by young revolutionists, who think that good can come out of an excess of evil. On the contrary, the people in 1789 had caught a glimpse of the light of approaching freedom, and for that reason they rose with good heart. But to hope was not enough, to act was also necessary; the first rebels who prepare a revolution must be ready to give their lives, and this the people did.[6]
      I'm sure it’s true that there has to be hope in order for a people to struggle for its liberation. If people are without even a glimmer of hope — which is what I’m finding among so many Americans here in Boston this summer, then the very notion of becoming engaged appears without justification to them: they despair of any possibility that they can act effectively to bring about change. So why even contemplate it? The logic is correct but the psychological manipulation they have been so effectively subjected to is deadly in its ability to make them accept the supposed hopelessness of the situation.

      How does it happen that some peoples (Americans in particular) are made hopeless while other peoples, like for example the Lebanese, in absolutely dire straits under the savage Israeli assault right now, are hopeful? I was amazed to hear Rania Masri of the University of Balamand in northern Lebanon [7] reporting the sense of “we will win this time” among people facing terrifying threats from Israeli firepower. She speaks of the optimism generated from the downing of a single Israeli F-16 during the bombing.

      Is it rational to be hopeful in such circumstances? An “intellectual” sitting in Starbucks at Central Square in Cambridge with a daily first cup of java and a copy of the New York Times or Boston Globe (owned, not incidentally, by the the NY Times corporation) “knows” it’s irrational. And there’s plenty of historical evidence to substantiate that weaker adversaries, hopeful of eventually winning, were, depending on the circumstances, either totally subjugated or obliterated. Our “intellectual” perception of historical possibilities for change that doesn’t conform to the status quo is blunted by the dominant corporate media. The “rationality” for which we have such great regard is part of the weaponry the ruling institutions deploy against us, we so-called intellectuals, to instill in us a sense of hopelessness.

      Again and again Kropotkin emphasizes in The Great French Revolution that the great bulk of the “intellectuals” kept shifting their alignment during that ferocious five-or-more-year struggle. They joined with the republicans, supporting the overthrow of the monarchy, nobility and clergy when that faction was in ascendency. But they jumped back to support suppression of the peasantry and poor workers when the back and forth struggle tilted in favor of the counter-revolution that sought to reinstate the ancién régime.

From the heart, not the intellect

      John Holloway starts his book, Change the World without Taking Power:
In the beginning is the scream. We scream.

      When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.

      The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-
of-existence that is the conventional image of ‘the thinker’.

      . . .When we experience something particularly horrific, we hold up our hands in horror and say ‘that cannot be true!’ We know that it is true, but feel that it is the truth of an untrue world . . .We need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we feel to be wrong.

      . . . That is our starting point: rejection of a world that we feel to be wrong, negation of a world we feel to be negative.[8] (emphasis added —G.S.)

      Our scream is a scream of horror-and-hope. If the two sides of the scream are separated, they become banal. The horror arises from the ‘bitterness of history’, but if there is no transcendence of that bitterness, the one-dimensional horror leads only to political depression and theoretical closure. Similarly, if the hope is not grounded firmly in that same bitterness of history, it becomes just a one-dimensional and silly expression of optimism. Precisely such a separation of horror and hope is expressed in the oft-quoted Gramscian aphorism, ‘pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will’. The challenge is rather to unite pessimism and optimism, horror and hope, in a theoretical understanding of the two-dimensionality of the world. Optimism not just of the spirit but of the intellect is the aim. It is the very horror of the world that obliges us to learn to hope.[9]

      I’m not entirely clear about Holloway’s logic in this inspiring passage. The quoted parts in the first four paragraphs are reasonably evident to someone like me who shares the rage of horror and frustration, someone to whom the real world is utterly unacceptable. It’s the last paragraph, where he makes much of the ‘bitterness of history’, an expression of Foucault, for which he gives an explanatory note, as he does for the Gramscian aphorism, that I find unclear. I think he is referring to the bitter history through which we are living day by day when he says that if we fail to transcend that bitterness then our horror is only “one-dimensional” and we become depressed and remain in a box, in terms of our political thought. That, I believe, characterizes the state to which many of my American acquaintances have been reduced. They are pained, deeply horrified, but immobilized, literally without hope. A frighteningly effective achievement of the dominant classes, gained by them primarily through their ownership and consequent control of the corporate media.

      But Holloway’s next assertion, “Similarly, if the hope is not grounded firmly in that same bitterness of history, it becomes just a one-dimensional and silly expression of optimism”, is confusing, at least to me. What can be the meaning of ‘grounding hope in the bitterness of history’? And is it meaningful to try to unite horror and hope in what he calls “a theoretical understanding of the two-dimensionality of the world”? I think it is not. I believe Holloway, in this instance, forewent the critical perspective that Kropotkin rightly held of French “intellectuals”. One doesn't need the artificial construct of multi-dimensionality (here two-dimensionality) to serve as a basis for ‘hope that is not shallow and trivial’. It seems to me Holloway’s only real use of that construct is as a springboard for the rhetorically powerful sounding but dubious conclusion of the paragraph, “It is the very horror of the world that obliges us to learn to hope.” [10]

      Nevertheless, the notion of a “silly expression of optimism” is a fair way to characterize the beliefs and hopes of many “optimistic” people. Their beliefs and hopes, their optimism, does, quite correctly, rest on an ignorance of history. In order to cling to the hope, for example, that the United States might weigh in and prevail in reviving the “peace process”, by halting the current fighting between Israel and the Palestinians and Lebanese and working towards a negotiated and just peace, historical ignorance is prerequisite. It’s unthinkable that someone like Robert Fisk or William Blum, each of whom knows a great deal of history, could believe such nonsense. And yet this nonsense is pervasive among substantial swaths of the American population. We have all been inculcated with false history since our earliest years, and many have not unlearned the dangerous falsifications. The United States is not, and has never been what we were taught.

Hope in spite of desperation

      The Lebanese, now again facing devastating destruction of the nation’s infrastructure under unrestricted Israeli military attack, haven’t forgotten the devastation of the 1982 Israeli assault and yet, as Prof. Masri reported, the people she spoke with expressed their hopefulness that “this time we will win”. The source of such hope, I believe, is neither “silly optimism due to them not being firmly grounded in ‘the bitterness of history’, nor the consequence of the horror they are experiencing. I think rather it comes from the fact that they have not — at least not yet — been totally crushed and, although they may recognize the magnitude of the threat, and the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, they still cling to the hope that somehow conditions may change so as to enable them to gain a favorable outcome. I think the same is true of the Palestinian people, indigenous to that tortured land.

      And of the indigenous Oaxaqueños whose exploited position at the bottom of the economic divide is of far longer duration than that of the suffering of the Palestinians or the Lebanese.

What can we do?

      In her spirited statement, “We are Constructing a Movement in Defense of Life” (Construyamos un Movimiento en Defensa de la Vida), Judith Cid Flores wrote “All, absolutely everyone of us, can do something to promote a more dignified life, one which appreciates really humane life and, for that, we must regain solidarity as a value based on individual human enrichment with importance to the community.” She was speaking to her fellow Oaxaqueños, but I think what she said is true for all of us, including U.S. nationals.

      I cannot pretend that I know what other individuals should do. All I can do is share with you where my own thoughts and efforts have led me, i.e. what seem to me important efforts at this moment in history. I've written a fair amount on this that I posted on my website, e.g. the first part of the essay, “The “Jewish” Problem, microcosm of the Human Problem”, at [11]

      The ongoing and urgent need to try to gain informed public opinion in the U.S. is critically important if we are to have any hope of changing the disastrous course of this nation. Thus all efforts to build grassroots communication and news networks seem to me vitally important. That’s a major focus of mine. An excellent source of information on the Middle East is Mazin Qumsiyeh’s website.[12] For current developments on the popular struggle in Oaxaca, the Oaxaca Study-Action Group has an active listserv that you can join.[13]


[1] Narco News reports and commentary from Oaxaca City by Nancy Davies, Geoffrey Harman, James Daria, Dul Santamaría and me, an essay by Judith Cid Flores in Oaxaca City, and a Narco News report by Margarita Salazar in Los Angeles are listed and linked to in my previous posting, at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-07-07.htm .

[2] Judith Cid Flore’s complete essay “We are Constructing a Movement in Defense of Life” (Construyamos un Movimiento en Defensa de la Vida) is (in Spanish) at
The English translation is at

[3] The Great French Revolution, first printed in 1909 in London and New York by William Heinemann and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. My references are to the 1971 reprint by Schocken Books, New York.

[4] Link to last posting in Note 1.

[5] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 1899, reprinted by Grove Press, New York 1970, pp. 12-13.

[6] The Great French Revolution, p.109.

[7] Rania Masri, interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now: The War and Peace Report, 17 July 2006. Prof. Masri is in the Faculty of Sciences, where she is Assistant Director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences. Her interview is at
http://www.democracynow.org/streampage.pl?show=2006-07-17 beginning at 15:19 on this hour-long broadcast.

[8] Change the World without Taking Power, by John Holloway, 2002, Pluto Press, London and Sterling, Virginia, pp. 1-2.

[9] Holloway, p. 8.

[10] Sometimes a tendency appears in the social sciences to ape the terminology of the real, i.e. hard sciences where mathematics and quantification are essential, in attempts to lend an appearance of solidity to arguments. This is a mistake. Social investigations, whether quantifiable or not, can stand on their own merits, without artificial clothing. The concept of multi-dimensionality is essential, for example, in describing the motions of bodies in space (three-dimensional) and in formulating a theory to account for the invariance of the laws of electricity and magnetism (Maxwell’s equations) in all inertial coordinate systems (the four-dimensional space-time continuum of special relativity). Incidentally, the three-dimensionality of ordinary space expresses the fact that motion in one dimension can be described independently of motions in the other dimensions, i.e. the coordinates are unlinked, not “united”.

[11] The “Jewish” Problem, microcosm of the Human Problem”, is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-05-13.htm

[11] Mazin Qumsiyeh’s website is at http://qumsiyeh.org/
To join his e-mail listserv, send a blank message to mazin.qumsiyeh-subscribe@lists.riseup.net

[12] The Oaxaca Study-Action Group website is at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaxacastudyactiongroup/
To subscribe write to oaxacastudyactiongroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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