In 1992, I was a thwarted, guilt-ridden and depressed revolutionary, living underground with my lesbian partner and two-year old daughter in St. Louis. I was part of a tiny group that had gone underground at the beginning of the 1980s, responding to the collapse of the mass movements after the end of the Vietnam War and the capture and imprisonment of many underground leaders. Our goal was to free some of those leaders and to sustain underground structures for what we thought was a brief hiatus in anti-imperialist struggle.
After more than a decade underground, we hadn’t contributed to those goals at all, and it was clear that the hiatus was more of a global collapse. The chaos following the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were the final straws; we reluctantly came to the conclusion that the times were against us, and we were desperately trying to get out of our situation. Plans to go to Nicaragua and then Cuba fell through. Our situation was complicated by the fact that two of our members were on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
I was working as an editor and worrying constantly that we would be arrested and our daughter lost to the foster care system. But mostly I was suffering from a severe case of political depression. What had happened to our dreams? What happened to the world we were all building? The defeat in Nicaragua was only the final blow to a long litany of revolutionary struggles that had looked so promising and turned out so badly: Angola, Mozambique, Chile, Vietnam, Grenada, the list went on and on. My situation had its specifics, but the level of depression about progressive struggle was worldwide. It was a conversation happening, or more frequently not happening, in virtually every country in the world.
It was at just this time that I read an extraordinary book, Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda, by Margaret Randall. Randall, a life-long revolutionary writer, photographer and activist, lived in Cuba for a decade and in Nicaragua for four years after the Sandinistas’ successful revolution there. Despite the unpopularity of both terms, she defines herself as a socialist and a feminist. The central tenet of her book is contained in its subtitle: she believes that the fatal flaw of the development of revolutionary theory and practice has been its male supremacy. She defines this not only in women’s participation or the responsiveness of movements to women’s immediate needs, but in an understanding of power, which she calls “perhaps the central feminist issue.” Her perspective was shaped by the voices of Sandinista women in Nicaragua in the period after the electoral defeat of 1990.
“I am really talking about two aspects of feminist concern,” Randall says. “One is the obvious need for a broader and more deeply rooted inclusion of women in positions of political power. The other is what we might call the feminization of power itself” (35). “I now wonder if socialism’s failure to make room for a feminist agenda — indeed, to embrace that agenda as it indigenously surfaces in each history and culture — is one of the reasons why socialism as a system could not survive” (37). Randall isn’t just speaking for herself. As an oral historian since the early 1960s, she’s making a contribution based on distilling the specific experiences and ideas of dozens of revolutionary women in Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
Gathering Rage made me so excited I couldn’t contain myself: I had to keep putting it down to go running, or to sing and shout in the shower. Randall provided a framework for explaining what went so terribly wrong; how so many people committing their lives to revolutionary change in so many countries could so completely lose their way. Gathering Rage could have become the focus of a regeneration of revolutionary movement. But it never happened. Socialists thought that Randall was too feminist; feminists thought she was too socialist.
Why bring this up now? The world has changed a lot since 1992. Activists now tend to define themselves as anarchist or not to define themselves at all. No one talks very much about Nicaragua, revolution, or the women’s movement — except as historical artifacts.
But I believe that Gathering Rage is the starting point for a discussion we need to have. For many years we’ve avoided talking about what kind of world we want — we’ve stopped talking about our goals. I don’t mean short-term goals, like ending the death penalty or affirming gay marriage. I mean what kind of society we want to live in, and how we can get there from here. At the risk of seeming like a dinosaur, that was the strength of Marxism — there was a view of the future that inspired people all over the world to redefine what that meant in their particular circumstances and to make tremendous sacrifices to try to get there. In our disillusionment with the early efforts to reach those goals, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The problem isn’t having a dream; the problem has been our inability to analyze our failures and redefine where we’re going and how to get there.
This is an exciting time. For the first time in decades, there are bright spots in the international stage, and here in the United States there’s a rekindling of energy and hope. There’s a new generation of activists and a million new ideas. But the kind of changes that the world needs, and that the world needs the United States to make, can’t be made by a network of nonprofits or a series of projects, no matter how brilliant. We need organizations with the depth and resilience to withstand the carrot and the stick, resilience that’s based on a deep-seated commitment to what we’re leaving for our children and their children. We need a movement with a vision of the society we want and a creative, critical, ongoing discussion of strategy and tactics.
That discussion needs to include an analysis of where we’ve been. What was right about the goals and strategies of the revolutionary movements of the past half century? What were the problems and contradictions? For those of us who participated in the struggles of the past decades, we have a responsibility to shed clear light on that history, to speak honestly and deeply about the successes and the problems we encountered, so our youth can truly stand on our shoulders. The world doesn’t have the time for them to start from scratch.
Gathering Rage, because it’s rooted in recognizing strengths and weaknesses, in speaking the truth no matter how uncomfortable, deserves a new look. It’s a great book to read and discuss in a book group, a political organization, a study group. It’s a catalyst for the kinds of expansive, serious analysis we need to take on the future and make it ours.
Jody Sokolower is a longtime anti-imperialist activist.