An Open Letter to William Chaney by Aaron Albrecht

I am writing to thank you for your previous contribution to the Monitor. “The Spirit of Communism in Ferguson” was an interesting article. I believe contributions such as yours perpetuate the ongoing social dialogue and advance the nascent social consciousness we share as students on campus. I am in support of your actions, and through them I see that you share my sentiment of the importance of confronting the grave problems facing our generation and the world. Such is our human social responsibility.

I find it disturbing that a number of students are politically apathetic and generally disengaged. Such political apathy and disengagement is not a moral failure on the part of the individual, nor is it on account of a poorly developed character. Rather, it is borne out of the circumstances in which we students find ourselves. On deciding to pursue degrees, we have made a conscious decision to improve our future standard of living and our life chances, and this a rational decision is motivated by interest. However, our common identity is temporary and transitory; after graduation we hope to enter the workforce and adopt professional identities. Because of the temporary and transitory nature of our common identity it is no wonder that a sense of social responsibility, community-investment, and political participation is lacking. This phenomenon occurs across college campuses broadly. Contributions like yours reverse the tide of apathy and inspire individuals to thicken the social fabric of our student community through contributing to the ongoing social dialogue and advancing a sense of social responsibility and participatory, critical engagement. For this reason I thank you.

I appreciate Alex Wernerberg and the others that produce the Monitor. They have opened up a space for critical, reflexive social dialogue, have created an outlet for human expression and a means for thickening the social fabric of our community. These social dialogues are the vehicles that move history. It is my hope that the present contribution furthers this dialogue in a progressive, constructive direction; the direction of a student body that is socially invested in our community and world, that is excited by democratic participation, and that is conscious of the influence we have as students, and the means we have to advance progressive social change.

It is clear that you have achieved a measure of social consciousness uncommon to much of the student body. I was impressed by your knowledge of Marxian analysis. Such an ability to understand, analyze, and communicate arguments through Marxian analysis is a feat in and of itself. These Marxian class and structural analyses are particularly fruitful given the growing levels of wealth and income inequality domestically, abroad, and internationally. As you correctly identified, issues like the global economic crisis, the global security crisis, the coming environmental catastrophe, poverty, hunger, unemployment, drug abuse, and crime are indeed connected to the structure of the world capitalist economic system and its influence on human nature, psychology, character, and health. Marxist theory and critical theory in general give us comprehensive analyses which make clear these systemic relationships connecting social problems to the structure of the institutions that make up society and direct its evolution. But I fear that couching such analyses in the language of marxism, which seems to be loaded with dogmatic and ideological baggage, may not advance our cause of unifying and inspiring the student body to discover the power we hold collectively. This is due primarily to its popular inaccessibility, but also because of the negative reaction it inspires in our peers. Such analyses may alienate the very public that we are trying to reach and inspire toward political participation and action.

While Marxian analysis may be less than perfect in advancing our goal to the degree that you, William, and I might hope, it indeed has constructive elements to it, and one I find particularly important. At the core of Marxian analysis and critical theory is the deeply felt democratic spirit of political and economic equality, social fraternity, and the value and capacity for the individual to participate politically and create progressive change. It is toward the constructive nature of this democratic spirit of individual participation and social responsibility that I hope to call your attention and toward which I hope to direct this social dialogue.

This democratic spirit is at the root of many different strands of progressive, critical thought and social movements. It is a spirit so old and deeply rooted in human nature that it is found manifest in the social relations and composition of early hunter/gatherer societies and religious communities. The value of the individual and his/her social responsibility is a pillar of Abrahamic religions, and its call has been heard from the mouths of the biblical prophets wandering the wilderness. Latin American Liberation Theology is an example of a political program derived from the radical social responsibility doctrine of Christianity. The influence of this spirit is found in the writings of the ancient Greece and Rome, the modern philosophy of political liberalism, and in the subsequent socio-political critique of social democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists. In fact the normative themes of individual agency, political participation, social responsibility, and social, economic, and political equality are ones that unite the disparate parts of the progressive left: the anti-war movement, the movement against racism, the feminist movement, the LGBTQ movement, the indigenous peoples’ movement, the environmental movement, the movement for economic equality, and the labor movement, among others. It is interesting to note that this normatively charged spirit of democratic participation, social responsibility, and equality radiating from the depths of these movements is but one common characteristic.

The other characteristic common to the existence of these social movements is the causal relationship between the problems they are fighting with the the world capitalist economic system. The culpable face and bloody hands of Capitalism are shown upon the final analysis of the root causes of any one of these societal issues confronted today by our generation. To bring the emotionally and normatively charged language of an optimistic democratic ideal may beget more fruit than the heavy language of political marxism. It is toward a consideration of this approach that I hope to call your intellectual and moral energies. While Marxist analysis may lead to orthodoxy, intellectual elitism, alienation of the general public, fractiousness and fragmentation within the progressive left, and an equally charged reaction from the opposition, the utility of making primary the social democratic “spirit of democracy” is made evident in its “universality” as a social value, and its historical ability to unite the progressive left in a common effort toward the just reform of society.

The experience of the 1960s movement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is an illustrates this idea. SDS was born during the Cold War period of relative post-WWII prosperity of the 1950s and a cultural climate of conformity and suppression of critical dissent. This climate coexisted and fed into the climate of institutionalized racist bigotry. This was the time of the political disenfranchisement of blacks that led to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). There was also an atmosphere of anti-communist McCarthyism, which effectively silenced dissent. Moreover, the Southern Democrats, or racist Dixiecrats, strangled progressive reform from within Congress and swept the progressive legs out from under the democratic party.

The SDS was born out of an effort to realign the democratic party toward progressive values, to combat the deep seated political apathy on college campuses, and to fight against social injustices such as Jim Crow, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the War in Viet Nam, and other issues of social, political, and economic inequality.

The Students for a Democratic Society released a political manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement during their years of political activism, civil disobedience, protests, and demonstrations. This statement effectively united the progressive front under the banner of participatory democracy and social responsibility. The authors of the statement, chief among them Tom Hayden, sought to stay away from fractious Marxian analysis and elected to use the vocabulary of the democratic spirit. It was on account of this conscious choice that the New Left of the 1960s became united and by which were able to achieve some measure of social reform. They are to be amended for their exercise of “prefigurative politics,” whereby in their every day actions and operation they worked to mold their society by consciously practicing the ideals they sought to achieve. In this manner, status hierarchies and elected leadership were done away with in favor of mass, direct participation. Although the progressive movement of the 60s achieved much, it did not go without criticism.

The Students for a Democratic Society movement has been criticised then and now by radicals for being pragmatic, instrumentalist, populist, and reformist. It was criticized for deviating from strict Marxian analysis. Its fracture and ultimate disintegration came about due to the radicalization of inner elements that channeled debate in a non-constructive direction, in the direction of Marxist analysis, a direction that fragmented the movement instead of unifying it.

Today we continue to be faced with the problems of inequality of wealth and power, racism, sexism, and all-pervasive global war. We continue to to find ourselves in a sea apathy among our peers. I believe we can learn powerful lessons from our parents’ generation, the generation of SDS. It is because of this belief that I write you today. I want to invite you personally, William, and the other socially conscious readers of the Monitor to come and join the newly founded chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at Truman, and to put this social dialogue into political practice. I call on you and the others, in the spirit of participatory democracy, fraternity, equality, and freedom, to find meaning and fulfilment through expending purposeful, social and intellectual energies toward the ongoing social dialogue and political praxis on our campus. Only through such efforts can we hope to to unite the progressive left under a common banner, to reverse the tides of political and social apathy, and to set a fire underneath the feet of the Power Elite. Let us come together, actively live the society we want to create, and contribute to meaningful personal and societal change. May they cower at the strength of a politically conscious and unified movement in the spirit of participatory democracy and social responsibility!

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