My Heroes Have Always Been Leftists

Helen Keller, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, William Lloyd Garrison. Names that will stand beloved for their examples of humanity and love. And they were all on the left. This is not to say that they were necessarily political, but that the principles they fought for at the time can be considered left principles.

I bring this up in light of the ongoing demonization of the left. I bring this up to give those critics of today’s left pause.

Before they became national heroes, those advocates of equality and solidarity were demonized as well. One need only look back and see which direction the staunchest criticism was coming from and how they were described by the powerful interests they threatened.

Ironically, the very same people that would have been denouncing such courage back then have now tried to whitewash their stories and claim these heroes as their own.

If these heroes become generic, then their struggles become generic. The victories of the past no longer represent a long tradition of left struggle, but a wound that time simply healed through gradual change handed down from the powers that be only as they saw fit. Indeed, many of such stories have now been told in a light that actually gives the right credit for gains they fought tooth and nail against.

All of which illustrates that when the right adopts these same heroes, it is not only ironic but quite useful.

Stealing such hard won gains while defining the left through demonization leaves little attraction for present movement building. If for no other reason, we on the left must make sure that we never lose our heroes.

This is not to say that we should advocate hero worship. Hero worship is merely another form of hierarchy. But rather we should remind the world that these people were human just like you and I. Inspired by the potential they saw in others, they themselves insisted upon their own potential.

But there is another reason. We owe it to these courageous souls not to let their stories be co-opted. To allow the world to forget what they were fighting for would be no less than betrayal.

If they weren’t afraid to stand up to the right, neither should we be afraid to stand up to the right and set the record straight.

We must remind the right that our heroes were not the same. You may try to share ours, but we will never share yours.

Yours were heroes of power, often heroes of violence. Our heroes were those who stole power only to share it with those least fortunate. This is what made them left, and this is what we must never forget.

Lonnie Ray Atkinson is a concerned citizen living in Nashville, TN. He is the author of What You Are Reading I Am Screaming: A Panic In The Absence Of Question and runs projectQUESTION. Read other articles by Lonnie Ray.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. DanE said on September 27th, 2008 at 3:23pm #

    Well, features you could call “socialist” have been introduced in Venezuela, but you could hardly claim it to be a “socialist country”.

    I welcome writer Atkinson’s general thesis, but don’t think C. Chavez would nec. be pleased by being called “leftist”. It should be common knowledge that he and Ms Huerta represented the rightward element within the Farmworker movement; along with Jerry Brown they get most of the credit for funnelling its energies back into the Vatican/AFL-CIA/Democrat Pty orbit where it stagnates to this day in pool of Nepotism.

    But in the context of DV trollery with its Libertarianistical sabor, any kind of labor-oriented outlook is liable to be viewed with extreme suspicion. So I hope Bro. A’s piece serves to restore some needed balance?

  2. Deadbeat said on September 27th, 2008 at 5:08pm #

    Atkinson’s says…

    And they were all on the left. This is not to say that they were necessarily political, but that the principles they fought for at the time can be considered left principles.

    Exactly. The key is adherence to PRINCIPLES.

  3. Brian Koontz said on September 28th, 2008 at 6:20pm #

    One myth of capitalism is that it’s “rightist”. Capitalism is not about being on the right, it’s about control. As long as capitalism can *control* something, that something is no longer (if it was) a functioning aspect of anti-capitalism.

    The capitalist project is about controlling the world, bringing the entire world under consensual domination. Capitalism sees Hellen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr. not so much as members of the left, but as agents outside their control, and thus in need of being brought under their control. As the Borg would say: “They must be assimilated”.

    *Only* after they are assimilated are they safe for capitalism, and thus treated positively by capitalists.

    Capitalism is not so much an ideology as a domination machine. It’s more like a shark (stereotypically) than a human. Treating capitalism as merely “rightist” loses much of it’s reality.

    Likewise, it’s insulting to give principles like justice, health, freedom, happiness, and empowerment the term “leftist”, as if they are merely on the other side of the seesaw from capitalism, merely the difference between one hand and the other, between one direction and another. The difference between socialism and capitalism is not “left” versus “right”, it’s about a world of democracy, of mutual respect, fair struggle and brotherhood and resolved disagreement, a world without poverty and with limited war and a world of perpetual terror, domination, exploitation, massive perhaps extinctual war, disease, and starvation. The differences cannot be more stark.

    Nearly all future humans are socialists. How can capitalism be a “rightist” position? It’s more like a “anti-future” position. It’s a position that states that *I*, defined as a singular body, must maximize control over resources and thereby minimize the control that others have over resources. Everyone else is encouraged to behave in the same way, and *everyone else* only applies to humans who are currently living. Future (and past) humans are treated as non-entities.

    Capitalism creates only two kinds of beings – those that are greedy and self-serving and those that do not exist.

    Why do we give capitalism the *honor* of saying it’s “rightist”? Why do we pretend it’s on the same plane as socialism, the same line?

  4. Gary Lapon said on September 29th, 2008 at 11:31am #

    “What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

    V.I. Lenin, from State and Revolution

    I think of this quote every time I see mainstream politicians heaping praise on people like Martin Luther King, Jr., as cover for their policies that stand in direct opposition for what MLK, Jr. died fighting for (racial and economic equality won through militant class struggle…he died after advising the Memphis strikers that they were “together enough to do it,” it being a general strike in the city of Memphis).

    Ironically, Stalin did the same thing to Lenin, using Lenin’s image as cover for the oppression of the working class, the very people whose emancipation Lenin made his life’s project.

    I agree with Mr. Atkinson. We need to reclaim our history, to honor those who have struggled before us. The best way for us to honor them is by standing on their shoulders, by learning from their failures as well as their successes so that we might take their struggles forward and build a world free of the oppression and exploitation they fought against.

  5. cg said on September 30th, 2008 at 7:06pm #

    What’s a leftist?

  6. Jonathan said on December 13th, 2008 at 3:56pm #

    I really enjoyed the article. Thanks.