If a tree falls in the forest and there are no witnesses, did it really fall? History says no, because the event has not been recorded. It’s not even one of those insignificant happenings that, like a poorly received work of art or a forgettable personality, is consigned to the “dustbin” of history.
Professor Rose Muzio was a witness; not only that, a participant. Her book, Radical Imagination, Radical Humanity, tells us the story of a revolutionary Puerto Rican/Latino organization of the 1970s and early 1980s: El Comité-MINP.
El Comité – I’ll use it’s more commonly known designation – occupies a unique space in the history of Latino radicalism. It emerged fairly spontaneously from the conflicts surrounding housing and discrimination, from within a specific geographical space, the West Side of Manhattan. From that rather modest beginning El Comité grew to take on numerous social and political struggles in other parts of the city and beyond.
The author describes some two dozen concrete examples of contestation over community, labor, educational and other democratic and human rights. Some of these instances consumed El Comité’s energies as the protagonist force over an extended period; others involved El Comité’s role as a collaborator within complex alliances. The group was similarly engaged in the realm of solidarity work, in publishing a newspaper, and in an on-going discourse with non-Latino radical groups seeking a path toward a multi-racial U.S. revolutionary party. In that process, El Comité organically evolved into a Marxist-Leninist political formation, adopting the ideological fervor of the time.
All of this took place, Muzio reminds us, subject to the surveillance and disruptive tactics of a government out to repress groups on the Left that challenged capitalist oppression, racial and gender inequities, and imperialist control.
For me the marvel of El Comité was its ability to sustain its activism over more than a decade-long period, through a multiplicity of campaigns and activities, with relatively little mentorship from an older generation of experienced revolutionaries. In this El Comité differed from, on the one hand, the Young Lords (who had a blazing but relatively brief moment on history’s stage) and, on the other hand, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, U.S. Branch (which was a constituent part of a leading revolutionary organization based in Puerto Rico). But this comment is just a preliminary assessment.
Muzio deals forthrightly with the reasons for El Comité’s decline. The way in which democratic-centralism was applied in a critical juncture is partly to blame. Towards the latter 1970s, as internal tensions and conflicts arose over a set of issues, she says: (and I quote) “The multiple layers and separate units inhibited the political conversations that were needed to evaluate the shifts in the political landscape and to chart a unified path forward” (p. 155).
I believe this point speaks to El Comité’s potential relevance for contemporary social movements. The proper application of democratic centralism can be a very effective method for building a movement. It can allow for a focus on a collectively defined mission and program of action. You can imagine this as a three-step process. Given a mission and program of action, the organization tests these through action in the real world; then secondly, it evaluates the achievements or lack thereof; and thirdly, it revises the mission and program where necessary. The process is repeated continuously, safeguarding thorough participation and inclusion of membership. When the relation is thrown out of balance (for example, too much democracy, or too much centralism) the organization suffers. Recent experiences in social struggles such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have contended with this question, often rendered as the tension between horizontalism and hierarchy.
It would be a mistake to attribute El Comité’s decline, however, to self-inflicted errors of this nature. Muzio agrees with most analysts that the onset of the Reagan era culminated a severe shift right-ward in the U.S. political economy. She reasonably argues that these macro forces were the determinant factors in overwhelming the radical and progressive organizations of the time.
Careful study of this book can also reward the reader who is attuned to the challenges facing activists of today. What is meant by an organization’s Political Vision? Political Program? What is meant by Revolutionary Values (Muzio’s “Radical Humanity”)? What is the difference between strategy and tactics? The short-term, and the long-term? Throughout the text are passages and narrative wherein these topics are alluded to. I can envision some professor of politics or social movements posing a two-part assignment: Part One “identify examples in this book where these questions and dilemmas arose and describe how El Comité dealt with them” Part two: “Discuss how a contemporary organization has confronted and dealt with such challenges”
Among Muzio’s contributions is that she has provided new material for the comparative analyses of the various groups that comprised Puerto Rican/Latino movements in the Diaspora. Recent entries by Darrel Wanzer and Iris Morales – along with work-in-progress on the PSP – will add to the growing literature on this experience. Historians of U.S. social movements will no longer be excused for overlooking the story of Puerto Rican radical activism of the 1960s through the 1980s.
“Flashforwarding” beyond El Comité’s heyday, it is also inspiring to see that so many of El Comité’s members continued to be embedded in the struggles of the 1990s and of the new millennium, often alongside alumni of other Puerto Rican Left organizations. Many of those alumni are part of today’s Resistance; the necessary resistance to the latest wave of reaction in U.S. history. They are not inclined to accept the normalization of ignorance, hatred, racism and abuse.
Rose Muzio has echoed the sound of the tree that fell in the forest, preserving its resonance for at least another generation. We can now listen to it and meditate on its meaning. Radical Imagination, Radical Humanity is a gift to those who were a part of that history and to those non-members who witnessed it. It is also a valuable resource to today’s social movement activists.
In that spirit, and in the hopes that I haven’t stolen some the comments she has for you this evening, I give you Professor Rose Muzio.