Ten Things the Past Can Teach Us Today

Ten Things the Past Can Teach Us Today

Ten Things the Past Can Teach Us Today

“Live as if you are free” and other lessons of the past can help us build a progressive future.


As the great New Left activist, journalist and longtime Nation editor Andrew Kopkind wrote in these pages, “People will always have a need to join in collective efforts to secure a better life for the many against the greedy predations of the few…. There is always another chance to bring a better system to birth, which is what history means, after all.” In honor of this premier left chronicler, the Kopkind Colony was established in 1999, a few years after his death, by friends and family as a summer project to encourage the work of independent journalists, filmmakers and grassroots activists. Those at this year’s gathering suggest ten things you can do to use the lessons of the past to build a progressive future.

 1 Know the enemy. War and economic exploitation are not particular to the personality of Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld, and changing the characters has not changed the plot. Read, or reread, Marx for what is still the most thoroughgoing critique of capitalism; read Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land for a social democratic vision of “the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good.”

 2 Contesting how we learn from the past, countering the dominant belief system, and educating ourselves and others are some of the most important political acts. Start a newsletter, online or off; a political club; a low-watt radio show (go to Prometheus Radio to learn how; use Pro-media Communications as a resource). Get involved in the black, ethnic, youth or labor press. Go to Vox Union.

 3 An advance for one group often leads to advances for others. The civil rights struggle inspired movements of marginalized people everywhere. The right’s recent assault on the Fourteenth Amendment should remind us that immigrants’ rights are everyone’s rights. Check out the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

 4 Don’t take the politics out of culture wars. When Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” at the 1992 GOP convention, he was organizing politically. The broad left’s mistake was to think this was simply an attack on identity and was thus the responsibility of “identity politics.” Read how the right cries wolf here and here. For an example of the creative merging of identity politics with broader struggles, check out Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

 5 Don’t take the culture out of politics. When Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children wanted to close down a juvenile prison, they held a New Orleans–style mock jazz funeral procession. And the Patois Film Festival works year-round with activists on the issues exposed in the films.

 6 Be alert to changing conditions. Historically, the organization of workers has followed the organization of capital. Recent decades have seen the rise of the temporary workforce, the private contractor and so on. Go to Freelancers Union and support worker centers like Arise Chicago Worker Center.

 7 Feed the people—and that doesn’t just mean food. The best workers’ co-ops link jobs, skills and politics. The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio is a multi-issue organization that engages the community by hosting exhibitions of local artists. Create cultural spaces with as many activities, from the political to the spiritual, as possible.

 8 Link struggles to bind communities worldwide. Workers were crucial in the antiapartheid struggle, refusing to load and unload South African ships, just as some now refuse to load and unload Israeli ships in solidarity with occupied Palestine. Residents of both Palestine and New Orleans have seen their homes bulldozed. Go to Take Back the Land, Louisiana Justice Institute and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions to see how the two communities are resisting oppression.

 9 Live as if you were free. It’s said that the turning point for people under tyranny comes when they lose their fear. Download ACLU’s “Rights of Protesters.” Read Walter Mosley’s Workin’ on the Chain Gang.

10 “Struggle is multi-form, but struggle is all the time.” Groups rooted in hip-hop culture and committed to social justice, like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, TRGGR radio and The Brotherhood/Sister Sol combine culture, history and politics. Read bell hooks’s Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Fight the power and dance to the music.

Conceived by Walter Mosley, with research by Rae Gomes
“Ten Things” is a monthly feature. Readers who wish to propose ideas for it should e-mail [email protected].

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy