||CHAPTER 5: ACTION VS. ARMCHAIR THEORIZING||Page 14|
Perhaps the most dramatic shift from theory into action was that of W.E.B. DuBois. For years he had worked in academia where "I tried to isolate myself in the ivory tower of race." As a scientist he had broken new ground, developing the new science of sociology and applying it for the first time to the Negro race, but his work was having no effect in the real world. It was only when his "indignation overflowed" that he turned to "aggressive action" and called a conference of activists that met near Niagara Falls. That started the Niagara Movement which then became the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People) where DuBois became a leading activist for civil rights and later for peace.
It is a basic principle of the new psychology that people are transformed by the actions that they initiate. Not only the consequences of the actions, but the very process of taking action changes the actor so that he or she becomes a "new person" operating at a higher level of consciousness. Values and purpose are reinforced. Anger is channeled into activity, rather than turned inward and allowed to fester into pessimism. Pessimism is dispelled by real results. As Sandy Pollack wrote, "I have to work for what I want, and that's where the beauty and joy lies...when I'm engaged in 'struggle,' in accomplishing anything of any sort, I'm not depressed - but feel rather good."
People are transformed by their actions whether or not the actions are successful. If the actions are successful, activists learn that it is possible for an individual to influence the course of history, as Helen Caldicott has put it:
Many seem to believe that it has simply become impossible for an individual to influence the course of national and world events. I disagree. My experience in Australia from 1971 to 1976 taught me that democracy can still be made to work - that by exerting electoral pressure, an aroused citizenry can still move its government to the side of morality and common sense. In fact, the momentum for movement in this direction can only originate in the heart and mind of the individual citizen. Moreover, it takes only one person to initiate the process, and that person may be politically naive and inexperienced, just as I was when I first spoke out.
Unsuccessful actions can also play a positive role if they are assessed correctly and the struggle is shifted to a higher level. At a lower level, the struggle may run into problems caused by a higher level of the system, and only by shifting to a higher level of action can these problems be overcome. No one illustrates this more clearly than Eugene Victor Debs. His American Railway Union was able to win "clear and complete" in the initial phases of their strike, but then the government joined with the corporations to defeat the strike. Only by shifting the attack to the capitalist system itself could this be overcome:
At this juncture there was delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows....an army of detectives was equipped with badge and beer and bludgeon and turned loose....startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered, and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago's white throat was in the clutch of a red mob; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and head-quarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the "lawful" authorities of the federal government....The American Railway Union was defeated but not conquered - overwhelmed but not destroyed. It lives and pulsates in the Socialist movement, and its defeat but blazed the way to economic freedom and hastened the dawn of human brotherhood.
An especially difficult psychological shift due to action can be the loss of a career, which is what occurred to A.J. Muste and Emily Balch. Although it was painful at the time, it opened the doors to their future development. For Muste, it all began when he went to an anti-war rally at the start of World War I:
I returned from the great anti-war demonstration in Washington....to lead a union Lenten service in my own church....the fact that I had gone to Washington and had not declared my support of the war on my return made me a traitor....The tension in those days was too great. I resigned. Almost without exception, in World War I, pacifist ministers lost their pulpits, or, as in Seattle....the minister "kept his pulpit but lost his congregation."
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