Staughton Lynd is a legendary American activist-intellectual. Like his near-contemporary (one year separates them) Noam Chomsky, Lynd speaks truth to power. But unlike Chomsky, Lynd abandoned his university position in favor of working with and for the oppressed.
Here is a man born into the upper-middle classes, who received his Ph.D from Columbia, taught at Yale, left to become an activist, then re-trained as a lawyer when he realized he needed to offer some concrete skills that could help those in need. He is author, co-author or editor of around thirty books, but his signature medium is oral history. It’s clear that Lynd is a spectacularly good listener, and – fortunately for us – a spectacularly good talker.
Wobblies and Zapatistas consists of conversations, or to be precise, monologues that come dressed in the garb of conversations: rich in anecdote, informal asides, and shared knowledge. The format is this: anarchist theorist and scholar Andrej Grubačić kicks things off with a brief introduction to a topic and then poses a question for Lynd to tackle. The subjects are numerous: working class movements, guerilla history, and Lynd’s work with prisoners, among many others.
The conversations are always enlightening, and all the better for the ghosts of the great activist-thinkers that haunt these pages: Rosa Luxemburg, Norman Morrison (who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War), Archbishop Oscar Romero, and numerous worker-friends who died fighting the good fight.
Here are some parts worth quoting in full:
Lynd on Women as Leaders
“My wife Alice and I have a recurring dialogue. I say, “Men have had their chance. They have blown it. Now it should be women’s turn.” Alice rejoins, “What about Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher?” … I think it’s a fact that, overall, women tend to be associated with grassroots, nonviolent initiatives for change. … I think a millennium or two in which women took the lead would be helpful to all concerned.”
Lynd on Nonviolent Civil Disobedience
“Nonviolent civil disobedience has brought about change at least as fundamental as change engineered by violence. … The transformation of South Africa, the collapse of Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe [was] prompted not by violent insurrection but by masses of people in the streets carrying candles. A resident of Brno, Czechoslovakia described to my wife and myself the series of demonstrations that brought about the change in that city: each evening, the crowd of demonstrators in the central square grew larger and the police fewer, until finally there were no police at all.”
Lynd on Racist Ideology
“Whence came slavery and racism? I [suggest] the answer: from a fall in the price of tobacco. That economic event, in the mid-1600s, made it imperative for Virginia tobacco planters to find a cheaper source of labor. They found it in Africa. … Until about 1600, black and white laborers were treated in roughly the same way … They feasted together, ran away together, and intermarried. By 1700, however, the enslaved status of black laborers had been made perpetual, social interaction between black and white workers was forbidden, and racism as an ideology had become embedded. Ideology, I thought then and think now, followed economics.”
Lynd on “Accompaniment”
“Accompaniment” is … how we wished to relate to the poor, to draftees and soldiers, to African Americans and other marginalized groups, to workers, and to people resisting United States imperialism in other parts of the world. We encountered the term during visits to Central America and in reading about liberation theology. Jack Melancon told us, “Sometimes all you can do for another person is to stand in the rain with him.”
Lynd on Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States)
“Although [Zinn] made his living as an academic, first at Spelman College and then at Boston University, he seemed entirely indifferent to academia. I recall that when he first recruited me to join him at Spelman College, I, fresh out of graduate school, asked Howard what papers he was working on to present at which conferences of historians. He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.”
Lynd on Decentralization of Power
“If you don’t have a headquarters then there is nothing for some Marxist grouplet to take over and there is nothing for the police to destroy. … In Afghanistan, … Afghans have always operated with a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A applies when the surrounding aggressive nations – Russia, the British Empire, India, Pakistan, the United States – occasionally give Afghanistan an interlude in which it can govern itself. … Plan B becomes necessary when one of the neighboring powers invades. [When the] national government [comes] under attack, Afghans dissolve it and run like water between the fingers of their would-be conquerors.”