It’s all Because of David McReynolds

Over my decades of activism I have had the opportunity to meet a phenomenal range of activists from around the world. I had just moved to Toronto when Harold Kandel came up to me and said “Shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of Emma Goldman”—an odd form of apostolic succession. In a few cases I’ve been able to spend time with those that had made a significant impact on the way I viewed the world. I’ve had the priviledge to talk with Caesar Chavez about vegetarianism and radical non-violence; to talk with Helen Caldecott on the difficulty of wanting to care for individuals when there is a global crisis demanding all of one’s attention; to talk with Philip Berrigan about radical risk taking. And I’ve had the opportunity to read the work of Emma Goldman and Lois Wilson and Dorothy Day and Leonardo Boff and others who tried to make sense of the call to radical compassionate action. Yet the most important influence on my approach to non-violent anarchism and a significant influence on understanding of living a faithful life as a Christian was a person who was neither an anarchist or a Christian. If I am able to sustain hope and continue to be a part of any ongoing activist movement it is due to the inspiration of David McReynolds.

Sometime around 1974 I first came across WIN Magazine and the War Resisters League. In the weary time that the anti-Vietnam War movement was finding itself, David McReynolds was writing about ways of observing and living in the world that would be sustaining and transforming. Around 1976 I came across a collection of his writings—We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century—that I have continued to draw inspiration from in this young millennium.

While long out of print, I do think that this book is worth trying to track down. If you are interested in the history of a time when it really was possible to with confidence talk about love leading to revolution, you will find this essential material. If you want to learn about sustaining hope when your movement consists of five people, you will find something here to keep you going in hard times. If you want to be reminded that there have been people whose opposition to violence and oppression wasn’t only directed against U.S. actions but also similar actions of US opponents, being a consistent voice both in Czechoslovakia and the U.S. in 1968 (making him a worthy successor of Emma Goldman), there is something of value in this work. Indeed, the Reclaim the Streets movement may have had its intellectual seeds in The Hipster General Strike. Here is both advice on organisational tactics and personal reflections on living through movements of the betrayal of what seemed to be within the grasp of those struggling for positive and substantial social transformation now.

For me three essays in this work have consistently stood out—In Defense of Butter; The Bowery: A Ghetto without a Constituency; and most definitely Notes for A More Coherent Article. They aren’t the most overtly political essays in this book but they continue to shape my understanding of what it means to be a radical.

When I first read In Defense of Butter I felt I had truly found a kindred spirit. I had found some of the purity and dietary approaches of many lifestyle anarchists, back-to-the-land types, early green advocates and similar advocates of a life not only simpler but somehow more puritan, more ascetic than one would expect from a movement that was attempting to build a new and more wonderful world for all. At times I felt that I had to embrace this approach in order to be treated seriously in dissident circles. McReynold’s reminder that a movement in which sacrifice and suffering is inevitable should not be one in which pleasure is denied changed my thinking on the nature of resistance and encouraged the value of finding enjoyment in the daily comforting rituals and foods and celebrations. And while I found its content valuable, I also found it an excellent, well crafted essay and the only one I consistently used as an sample in the years I taught creative writing.

The Bowery: A Ghetto without a Constituency is quite difference. It, more that writings of Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennessy, had me reconsider what being a radical truly means. It isn’t just walking on a picket line, taking part in demonstrations, boycotting goods from China or taking action against a major polluter. It is being able to care for someone because they need to be cared for, people that are so completely marginalised that it is painful to deal with them on a personal level. The homeless alcoholic, the abandoned drug user—these are people that need care and yet so often the care is felt to be meaningless. They find a shelter, clean up, get dried out and then end up back on street. We have learned, the North American urban activist, to walk by them when they are sleeping on a heating grate or huddled in an alcove. We may feel guilty about our seeming lack of compassion but the sheer immensity of human need is beyond most of us to deal with. This is an honest reflection on acknowledging the reality of their being vulnerable among us that the vast majority of us just can cope with, one that also reminds us that there are those among us such as those from the Catholic Worker communities that do find the strength to both challenge broader injustices and to care for those who often can not even care for themselves.

Long ago and far away, in the time before the Right to Privacy Committee and retired Anglican bishops calling for full access to church sacraments for those from the LGBT communities, in the shadow of Stonewall, David McReynolds wrote Notes for A More Coherent Article. Traditional leftists would still argue that homosexuality was a sign of bourgeois degeneracy. It was assumed that gay people in leadership roles in movement should not be honest about their sexuality. McReynold’s essay was intended to be a politically focused article, but instead he submitted his notes to Win Magazine. From current perspectives it is conservative in flavour. In the time in which he wrote, and even when I first read it a few years later, it was radically personal. His struggles to be true to himself in a movement where personal honesty and self-respect was all too often sacrificed for the tactical or strategic needs of the movement for social transformation touched me in a profound way. My use of the title phrase “Notes for a More Coherent”… in this blog and elsewhere such as my sermon notes is a small tribute to his McReynold’s.

I’ve have the opportunity to meet David McReynold’s twice—both of them long after We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century had gone out of print. He was a gentle, somewhat cranky individual with a sense of humour. He had an immediate rapport with children and put up with the demands of movement bureaucrats with grace.

Our world isn’t perfect. Our movements for social change aren’t perfect. However, both are the best of what we have. Both in person and through his writing McReynolds helped encourage me in all my imperfections to continue to struggle for a better world because it is the right thing to do.

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2 responses to “It’s all Because of David McReynolds

  1. I enjoyed reading your excellent, thoughtful appreciation of David McReynolds and his work. I remember the time during the 2000 election when I displayed a poster for Mr. McReynolds in my home in Michigan even though I wasn’t actually eligible to vote.

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  2. What a terrific tribute to a remarkable and severely underappreciated American. Aside from the time he has taken now and then over the last few years to email back and forth with me, mostly related to Socialist Party-related mailing lists, I especially appreciate a time back in 2000 when my then-girlfriend’s daughter had a middle school project to write to presidential candidates. The only one who wrote back – not even anyone else’s assistant or staff member – was David McReynolds himself. A very gracious guy who knows how to build bridges between people.

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