||CHAPTER 5: ACTION VS. ARMCHAIR THEORIZING||Page 15|
Emily Balch accepted an invitation to sail across the Atlantic with an anti-war group of prominent American women to meet their European counterparts opposed to World War I which was raging at the time:
Although they did not know it, the lives of several of the women on board the Noordam were to be completely changed by the trip. Jane Addams was to lose her tremendous national prestige, to regain it only in the course of time. Emily Balch was to forfeit her professorship, and her means of livelihood. Both were to be drawn into a new career, into international political work....And finally, to crown their pioneering though unspectacular labors, each was to receive the accolade of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Not all transformations are so dramatic; instead, each small step of action may lead to another, until one becomes deeply involved. For Bertrand Russell, on the eve of World War I, his first action was to circulate a petition against the war, then to write a letter-to-the-editor, then to attend anti-war meetings, and finally "I gave practically my whole time and energies to the affairs of the conscientious objectors." Similarly, Helen Caldicott describes how her involvement began with a simple act:
I began by writing a letter to a local newspaper. That letter generated some supportive correspondence, and a TV news program asked me to comment on the medical hazards posed by fallout. France had tested another nuclear device, and planned to detonate four more in the next few months. Each time the French tested a bomb, I appeared on television again, explaining the dangers of radiation. As the public became better informed, a movement to stop the French tests coalesced around the medical facts.
Other steps in consciousness development such as affiliation, personal integration and world-historic consciousness tend to come after the initial step of action rather than before it. Since this is not immediately obvious, it is worth considering this fact in the words from the oral history of a local peace activist:
When people look back over several decades, they tend to make more of a unity out of their lives than they might actually have had at the time, especially in this country where politics has been such an on and off thing since World War II. I think that a lot of us acted first and thought later. So later you say, "Oh, I see how everything fit together...." None of our activity came out of Marxism, socialism, or any kind of traditional radicalism at all. It was later that I began to learn about those things to see if I could theorize what I'd experienced in practice.
One source of evidence that higher steps of consciousness come later than action, rather than before it, comes from the fact that initial action for peace and justice often begins at a young age. Sandy Pollack was a teenager when she first became active:
On a winter Sunday the adults in her life met to discuss picketing at several high schools, including Sandy's, against military recruitment by the ROTC. Sandy listened, but was quiet and no one noticed her. Cecelia and Harry, driving past her school early the next morning, were therefore surprised to see their daughter carrying a picket sign, with three adults, half-frozen in the winter damp. Sandy was beginning to shape her own life. She was acting not from a sense of "responsibility," but from a dawning sense of power, that one person's acts could, in fact, make an enormous difference.
Dorothy Day was 19 when she set forth on her own in New York to find a job and an apartment and ended up working for the New York Call, a socialist paper that engaged her fully in the peace and justice movements of the crucial years around World War I. And Eugene Victor Debs was 19 when he joined the newly formed lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his home town and he was immediately chosen as its secretary. "Day and night I worked for the brotherhood," he wrote, and within three years he was chosen associate editor of their national magazine.
Action is the key that unlocks the door to higher levels of consciousness development. Through action one is led to affiliate with organizations where action can be collectively planned and effectively carried out. It is action that forces one to reorganize and integrate one's social relations around the issues of peace and justice. It is only through action that one can achieve world-historic consciousness. An armchair theorist can read and think all he wants, but without the test of practice and the collective wisdom of organizational action and assessment of that action, the armchair theorist will simply spin abstract ideas that diverge further and further from the real course of history.
(end of Chapter 5)