Terceira carta de Yarostan (Cartas de Insurgentes)
- Dear Sophia,
Your letter was comradely and. I'll try to answer in the same spirit. But I don't agree with you. You make the statement: “Our project was not to excommunicate but to communicate.” This is a bad joke. I'll try to show you that our project was to excommunicate, not to communicate.
I read your letter several times. Mirna read it. She's still convinced you're the ogre who caused my arrest but she now considers you a rather pleasant ogre. She even expressed a desire to get together with you and Sabina if circumstances should ever allow such a meeting. But she thought the passages where you glorify your past experience must have been taken from the speeches of our politicians.
Mirna and I were stunned to learn certain facts from your letter. I was amazed to learn that George Alberts had not been arrested at the time when you. Luisa, I and the rest of us were arrested. I also think it curious that you and Luisa were released after spending only two days in jail; I spent four years there and as far as I know very few of us were sentenced to terms shorter than that.
The reason I was amazed Alberts hadn't been arrested is because I had always thought he'd been arrested before any of the rest of us. I had thought Claude's suspicion of him a part of an official campaign designed to prepare Alberts' friends and acquaintances for his arrest. Such campaigns to stigmatize an individual as a suspicious character normally originated high up in the political hierarchy and were passed down to susceptible people like Claude. An instruction was thus transformed into a widely circulated rumor, the rumor gradually became a widely held certainty, and in time all the victim's friends acquiesced in his temporary or permanent liquidation, frequently feeling relieved to be rid of such a dangerous acquaintance. The fact that Alberts wasn't arrested suggests that the suspicion was not an instruction from the top but originated with Claude. Since Claude had never had personal contact with Alberts he must have been pointing his finger at Luisa or else at Titus Zabran or me, since we were Luisa's closest friends and therefore by extension Alberts' friends. Claude's act must have been a classical political move: he was incriminating one or all three of us in order to establish his power over the rest. His success against us would be a permanent threat he could hold over the others and his position as gang leader would be assured by his power to eliminate real or potential opponents. This wouldn't mean that Claude Tamnich was any less of a gorilla than I had remembered him to be but it would mean that he was considerably more intelligent.
Another reason I'm amazed to learn that Alberts wasn't arrested is because this conflicts with an event you mentioned in your first letter, namely with the fact that he was fired from his job. I had known about his expulsion at the time and had assumed this had been the first step toward his arrest and imprisonment. I had assumed he had been arrested for exactly the same reason we were. I had thought his firing had been something like a forecast of our arrest; he was accused of sabotage, of being a foreign agent and of representing a danger to society's productive forces. I know he wasn't the cause of our arrest but I was sure he had been arrested. Are you sure about this? I'm not asking to catch you in another slip of memory but to clarify my understanding. Since Titus Zabran as well as Luisa had long been his comrades I had assumed his activity had been similar to Luisa's, at least before he emigrated, and that consequently he had been arrested for the same reason.
The detail that upset Mirna concerned the letter you sent me twelve years ago. You make me feel I should apologize for bringing this up again. Before mentioning what bothered Mirna I should make it clear that I don't consider either you or Luisa personally responsible for my arrest or imprisonment. You apparently read my critique of our shared past activity as a critique of you and Luisa and you understood Mirna's suspicions about your letter to be part of that critique. My critique is primarily a re-evaluation of my own past and has nothing to do with Mirna's suspicions. I told you I didn't consider that letter responsible for my arrest and I didn't make the absurd suggestion that you sent instructions to the police. At the time of my second arrest thousands of people were imprisoned; they were accused of engaging in acts hostile to the state. I was arrested because of the activities in which Jan Sedlak and I and several other comrades were engaged at the time. The arrival of your letter happened to coincide with a vast uprising that broke out in Magarna, an uprising which had numerous echoes here. Jan and I were among those echoes; all the echoes were suppressed. Mirna saw a causal connection where there was nothing more than a pure coincidence. Yet my mention of Mirna's erroneous conclusion led you to think I was accusing you indirectly, backhandedly. Such an understanding of my letter makes it difficult for me to deal with Mirna's response to your most recent letter.
Mirna was upset when she learned that the messenger who delivered your letter was arrested. This information confirms her belief that your letter was the cause of my arrest. Her belief remains groundless, but your friend's arrest does pose another question. What was he doing here besides delivering your letter? Why was he so important to the police? Did they think your letter was an important document, or was he delivering something else besides?
You didn't believe your friend's account of the experiences to which he was subjected in prison. You very honestly admitted you couldn't believe a world we had helped build could have degenerated into such a primitive torture chamber. I don't know what he told you but I know that some of the experiences I have undergone are difficult to put into words. I suspect that your greatest injustice to him was to think he was lying.
The fate of your letter illustrates a point I'm trying to make. What is the relation between the intentions of our acts and the significance our acts have to others? How do others understand and respond to our words and gestures? Mirna's response to your letter illustrates that this relationship is not as clear and obvious as you make it seem. Living in a world where arrests are frequent, where news is rarely good, where the outcome of unusual events is not anticipated with joy but with fear, Mirna saw your letter as an omen. For Mirna that letter could only have been a threat or a summons; those were the only types of messages she had ever received. My point isn't to suggest that Mirna is right in thinking your earlier letter the cause of my arrest. My point is to understand what her attitude to your letter means. What you exclude from your analysis is the social context in which our acts take place. When you wrote that letter twelve years ago your intention was to communicate about experiences we had shared. This was the content of your letter. Yet to Mirna that letter was an omen; it was an object which had nothing in common with your intentions. Mirna was wrong. But let's imagine that she was right, that your letter did have something to do with my arrest. In that case your letter would have been precisely the object Mirna saw and not the communication you had intended. In that case there would have been a great discrepancy between your intention, to communicate, and the significance of your gesture, to cause my arrest.
After my first release from prison my outlook was very similar to your present outlook. Much of what I experienced during that four-year term should have changed that outlook but failed to do so until many years later. Like you, I treated my past, my experience with you and my understanding of Luisa's experience as a standard of comparison, as a stark contrast to the world into which I was released. The four years in prison only strengthened my desire to communicate this experience to others. Like you, I wanted to bring my earlier experience back to life; I looked for comrades with whom to resume the same struggle. Like you, I didn't want to become a “blind tool of the world that surrounded me. I saw through that world, I saw it as a cage, because I had experienced an outside, a Utopia, because I had struggled together with others to realize a different world.
This was my outlook when I embraced Mirna and her parents. I saw them as the common people, as typical examples of the broadest sector of the working population. I was convinced that if I could communicate my project to these few people they would themselves communicate it to all those like them and the revolutionary project would spread like a tidal wave. I was convinced that in time Mirna's father would translate into his own language his understanding that the constraints and the deadening routine were not imposed by nature like the cycle of planting and harvesting but were socially imposed, largely because he and his likes consented daily to reproduce the constraint and the routine. I was sure he'd find his own words for expressing his understanding that he and his likes had the ability to end the infernal routine and the ability to project and build an altogether different world. I was also convinced that Mirna would easily grasp that marriage, childbirth and housekeeping were not her lot, that those activities couldn't continue if she and her likes didn't submit to them. I was convinced that as soon as she translated this understanding into her own words she would communicate it to others like her, and a new field of possibilities would open up.
When Jan still lived at the Sedlak house I sensed a certain hostility toward my arguments. Though I knew he agreed with me, he never supported me. Once, after a long argument the subject of which I've forgotten, he told me he had never realized how much of a missionary I was. He treated my arguments as attempts to convert his family to a religion. I didn't try to understand his attitude. Later, when he and I worked together, I didn't draw any conclusions from the blatant difference between his behavior and mine. Like your friend Ron he flouted authority, didn't submit to discipline, avoided work whenever possible and stole as much as he could. Also like Ron and unlike you and me he didn't argue, he didn't try to convert anyone to his Utopia, he made no attempt to communicate his past experiences to others. I didn't learn the significance of Jan's hostility until several years later, when it had long been too late to let him know I finally understood what he had tried to tell me. My activity during those heated after-dinner arguments was not communication; it was missionary activity. It was exactly the type of activity that takes place in that school you described; it couldn't generate a community but only destroy it. I acted toward my hosts and future relatives as a priest, a professor, a pedagogue. My mind had transformed my past experiences into revelations of truth and I professed this truth in order to convert Mirna, her father and if possible even her mother. I had convinced myself that as soon as I communicated this truth from my head to theirs they would spread it further.
Every evening after dinner I launched into a tirade against one or another type of sold activity, usually bus driving. What Mirna's father heard was a tirade, a lecture, which referred only marginally to his own activity as bus driver and which had nothing at all to do with rebellion or insurrection. He knew people who rebelled in various ways: some came to work drunk, others damaged or wrecked busses, yet others used their busses on weekends for family outings. He may have sympathized with all of them and he understood they were all rebels in some sense. I clearly wasn't like them. My discourses on the need to abolish vehicles were not rebellion but pedagogy.
Professors of insurrection are not insurgents. Later in this letter I'll try to describe what I think they are. Most people know this. For example when Mirna read your letter she remarked that your friend Ron reminded her of her brother. Ron rejected wage labor, private property, education and his family through concrete acts; he fought against these institutions in his daily practice. Ron was an insurgent whereas you and Luisa are pedagogues, missionaries. You recognize the contradictory nature of such pedagogy in your description of your academic friend Daman but you don't seem to recognize it in Luisa or in yourself.
To Mirna's father I was neither a drunkard nor a thief nor much of a rebel. I went to work on time, drove the scheduled route, didn't get drunk and never tried to borrow the bus. Sedlak had no trouble at all understanding what I was in his world: a political pedagogue. And in his world such people were not bus drivers but politicians. He recognized me, not because of my birth or my social function but because of my behavior. He knew that in his world political philosophers didn't long remain peasants or bus drivers; they were eventually transferred to rungs on the ladders of union bureaucracies or government bureaucracies. When I tried to communicate my intentions he only heard me express the aspirations of a politician. All he saw in my gestures was the ability to satisfy such aspirations. And he related to me in terms of the way he saw me, not in terms of the projects and possibilities I thought I was communicating to him. I've already told you that he was very enthusiastic about my marriage to Mirna. His enthusiasm can't be explained by the fact that he liked me nor by the fact that he had fallen in love with my dreams and hopes, my projects, my past experiences. He was a generous and warm person but he was also a shrewd, calculating and observant peasant. The years of bus driving hadn't deprived him of the peasant's ability to orient himself to the village market. He could still sense the precise moment when the price of his commodity rose; he still knew which buyers were willing to pay the highest price. He hadn't lost the commercial instincts of peasants whose productive activity is oriented to the market. He was also aware that politicians had become the diamonds and caviar on the market of human commodities. My attempts to communicate with him had merely informed him that I was a commodity of this type. His enthusiasm for the marriage was motivated by a combination of traditional and commercial considerations. Traditionally the husband or wife of a villager had to be strong and healthy; the same standard was applied to cows and horses. A sick cow or a weak horse would constitute a burden; what was desired was an animal that would contribute to the maintenance of the peasant household and would assure the survival of the parents in old age. Sedlak applied this standard in the conditions of the society in which he found himself. The husband still had to be healthy and strong but these requirements lost their physical meaning and referred to commercial qualities. Thus healthy became equivalent to marketable, namely the quality of being useful to specific potential buyers. He had to be strong, not physically but commercially, in the quantitative sense of commanding a high price, as opposed to a weak ordinary commodity the low quality of which is proved by its low price. Consequently for Sedlak the marriage was a shrewd commercial transaction; he sold his daughter in exchange for an anticipated future which would more than recompense his original investment. He made only one mistake in his calculations, and considering the limits of his knowledge of the market his error was really very minor. His main estimates were all precise. The conditions of the market were exactly those he surmised: today's buyers do in fact pay more for politicians than for any other human commodity; our century is after all the golden age of the political racketeer. And thanks to Luisa I was in fact a commodity of that genus. His only miscalculation was caused by his lack of familiarity with the specific commodity in question. If apples had been in question he would have known that only certain types of apples were selling for an exaggeratedly high price and he wouldn't have erred by bringing the wrong apples to the market. But he wasn't as familiar with politicians as with apples. He didn't grasp the subtle differences between politicians; he didn't even know there were such differences. To him all politicians were the same. He lacked the system of classification of this commodity. This is what caused him to err. He mistakenly placed his expectations on a commodity of the right class, even the right genus, but the wrong species. He never understood his error.
My words didn't inform Sedlak about my past experiences or my hopes or my determination to struggle for a different world. They informed him about the characteristics and the potential selling price of a commodity. I thought that by communicating those experiences and formulating those arguments I was ceasing to be a tool of my environment, a mere object in a world of objects. Yet the end result of my activity was a complete inversion of my intentions: I succeeded only in defining myself as a specific type of object.
My point isn't to expose a peasant's motives or idiosyncrasies but to understand what happened to the hopes and projects I once shared with you when I tried to communicate them to other human beings. How did others perceive me, my project and my past experience? Was Sedlak's perception of me distorted? Or was it my self-perception that was distorted? He recognized the pedagogue behind the speechmaker, the politician behind the pedagogue, and the repressive machinery of the state behind the politician. He recognized the political rhetoric as the main attribute of today's rulers. It was I who didn't understand the nature of my activity. I only understood it in terms of my intentions, as you still do today. At that time I shared your present commitment. That's why you're right when you compare my release after my first prison term with your experience after you emigrated. Both of us lacked and tried to reconstitute the project we had shared. I saw the Sedlaks as people with whom I could share that project; you saw Ron as such a person. But you failed to learn from Ron what I eventually learned from the Sedlaks: that I wasn't one of them but one of the pedagogues; that my teaching wasn't distinguishable from the one that had created their repressive world; that this pedagogy was nothing more than a series of rationalizations which justified the rule of pedagogues over the rest of society. When Mirna's father saw a politician behind the pedagogue he wasn't exhibiting his ignorance but rather his acute powers of observation. He saw my dreams as illusions and linked my gestures to the repressive acts of the ruling order. It was he who exposed the nature of your and my past experience, not because he was a social philosopher or critic but because he had a fairly lucid awareness of the world he inhabited and because, like a prisoner in a crowded cell, he tried to accommodate himself as well as possible without causing discomfort to others and without dehumanizing himself.
The commitment I once shared with you rebounded from the world and hit me in the face. At some point I had to reexamine that commitment. When I found that my past experience as well as my attempts to communicate it were flawed I began to reject them. I consider it highly significant that teaching happens to be the branch of activity in which you've engaged yourself. I'm sorry if I seem intentionally cruel. I know from your description of your life's activities and from your attachment to experiences I've been rejecting that you're offended by my present attitudes. When I first wrote you I wondered if you had changed and if I'd recognize you; when I read your first letter I recognized you far too well; I realized it was I who had changed. I had reexamined and rejected the qualities you had maintained. That's why I responded to your letter with a certain amount of anger. I wasn't responding to you but to myself and my own recent past, to attitudes I had only recently wrestled with and rejected in myself. If you thought my attacks were aimed specifically at you then you misunderstood me. They were aimed at a past which I share with most of my contemporaries. Today I'm one among hundreds, maybe thousands, who are rejecting and uprooting and exposing that past. Contrary to what you say repeatedly in your last letter, the ferment surrounding me today is not a continuation of any project you and I took part in. All around me in factories and schools and on the streets my contemporaries are turning their backs to the experience you celebrate in your letters and also to the dreams you and I once shared.
A few days ago I visited the plant where I had found my first job, where I had met Titus and Luisa and you. The last time I had been there was fifteen years ago after my first release. Your letters and my attempts to remember and describe the plant stimulated me to see it again. I also had a vague desire to find out what happened to the people who have played such a significant part in your life.
I was stunned by what I saw there although I should have expected it. Zagad's name has now been removed from the front of the building, from all the windows and from the cartons; it has been replaced by the word “popular.” And hardly anything else in the plant has changed — in more than twenty years! In fact it is now more similar to the place I once worked in than to the plant I visited after my first release. The machinery seemed greased and oiled; everything seemed to be in working order. On the other hand the building is deteriorating, the walls haven't been painted for at least a quarter of a century, the work space is even dirtier than it had been fifteen years ago and the printing on the cartons is of even lower quality. The red posters on the walls with their messages celebrating the glorious victory of the working class are covered with grime.
The first major change that took place there during the past, twenty years was taking place before my own eyes; the workers were on strike. It's the first strike there in twenty years. It started a week ago.
Everything about this strike glaringly demonstrates that it has nothing in common with the last strike that broke out in that plant, the one you and I took part in. And everyone in the plant was aware of this. I didn't even have to ask questions. As soon as I introduced myself as someone who had worked there once and had been imprisoned for sabotage, everyone started talking at once. What everyone expressed most clearly and unmistakably was relief: “It's over! The terror is over!” It's as if a war or a plague had suddenly come to an end. Various workers told me that for several weeks they'd been skeptical and cautious. They had read about the attempted coup by the president and the army and about the suspension of the police but they didn't discuss these events. They listened to the speeches of politicians, at first only on their radios at home; later a worker brought a radio to work and they listened all day. They started to talk about the speeches. But they didn't act. They were suspicious. They thought the whole sequence might be nothing more than a performance conducted by those on top, an intermission between two acts, a change of guard, a mere replacement of one repressive group by another group with different names and slogans but equally repressive. Then they began to hear of outbreaks of strikes in other plants, oustings of police agents, managers and union representatives. They learned that the workers who took part in those acts weren't arrested, imprisoned or even fired. At that point they stopped discussing the speeches on the radio and started talking about their plant. The decision to strike grew out of those discussions. It was the collective decision of the workers in the plant. It wasn't a decision taken by politicians and transmitted to the workers by union representatives or any other agents of those in power. In fact the purpose of the strike was to oust the union representative. They won this demand immediately: the official left his post as soon as the strike broke out. But the workers remained on strike. They worked out a scheme for replacing the union representative. They wanted the post to rotate among all the workers in the plant, in alphabetical order. Each worker was to occupy the post for a month. The manager insisted on a permanent and appointed union representative. The workers abandoned their initial scheme and insisted only on the right to elect a permanent representative, a demand the manager is ready to grant. I asked them why they gave up their demand and why they didn't oust the manager along with the union representative. Various workers explained that the present manager is a pliant and mediocre bureaucrat who performs his functions reluctantly and obeys instructions like everyone else whereas the previous union representative had been the real power behind the management arid the most feared and hated individual in the plant. The union representative was a member of the political police and his actual function was that of prison warden. As soon as he was ousted all the minor police agents among the workers quietly disappeared. Thus the removal of this single functionary clears the air and creates an atmosphere of freedom never before experienced by most of the workers in the plant. I was told that all the other steps they might take were minor by comparison; now that they've recovered their ability to act and removed their main fetter they'll wait and see what other steps the situation makes possible. Behind this realism I sensed a certain amount of fear.
Despite their apprehension and their caution these workers are not the puppets we were. This time the project is genuinely their own. I don't want to exaggerate the importance of what they've done so far. Strikes initiated by workers have been nearly impossible here for twenty years but such strikes are not a new discovery. Nor is the ousting of a union representative a novelty. All I want to emphasize is the difference between this event and the one you and I experienced. The forces in play are almost identical. A group of politicians is jockeying for positions of power. The politicians' journalistic admirers are designing haloes and crowns for their patrons, hysterically trying to stimulate displays of reverence for one or another clique of racketeers. Professors and union bureaucrats are flying from one plant to another frantically and pathetically seeking applause for one or another bureaucratic panacea. Each political group is trying to plant its agents among workers, each group is trying to stimulate workers to demonstrate support for one or another part of its program. But unlike twenty years ago the politicians aren't succeeding. The speeches are cheered and ignored. Workers invite speakers, praise them, applaud them and then discuss the next steps to be taken with each other; the steps they take are almost always diametrically opposed to those advocated by the speech-maker they applauded. The workers I saw in the plant weren't carrying out the directives of officials but exploring and carrying out their own desires. I sensed a feeling of solidarity I hadn't felt twenty years ago; it was a solidarity cemented by mutual aid instead of mutual suspicion.
And this group of people welcomed me. Unlike my experience fifteen years ago, when the union bureaucrat told me he couldn't afford to hire a convicted saboteur, these workers invited me to join them before I even asked. Several people asked me if I had another job and since I didn't they urged me to “come back.” Several openings have been created by the sudden resignation of the police agents who fled when their chief was ousted, fearing the other workers' revenge. I told them I'd think about it and they said they'd reserve a place for me. The very possibility of such an invitation is probably the greatest change in the plant's history. I wasn't being hired but invited: the difference in words alone indicates that a profound change is under way. One is hired to a job; I was being invited to take part in an experience whose content is as yet unknown. And the people inviting me were neither owners nor managers nor union bureaucrats but workers. They were inviting me to join them in an activity which was about to be transformed from a deadening routine to a project, although no one as yet knew just how it was to be transformed.
What I saw, heard and felt amounted to a complete rejection of your and my past experience. I'm sorry if this sounds cruel or callous. You sound even more callous to me when you describe our past activity as a project in which the whole population raised itself out of submission. Such a description is a travesty of the real event. Your description refers to the moment when the whole population immersed itself in unprecedented submission. The population is raising itself out of that submission only now, scarred and weakened after twenty years of bending but not defeated. What these workers are finally questioning is everything that was imposed on them twenty years ago — everything except the function of the plant itself, which Jan Sedlak and your friend Ron would have questioned but not you or I or Luisa. They've discussed everything except the nature of their activity, an activity in which people sell their lives so as to package other people's sold lives, an activity that epitomizes the cannibalism of the commercial monstrosity that nourishes itself on human lives. I have no idea whether or not these workers are going to storm that fortress. If they do, you and I will not have contributed to that struggle with our slogans about workers administering and managing their own factories.
Before I left the plant I asked the workers if any of them might know what happened to our former comrades. Several people had heard of three of our friends but they were all surprised to learn our comrades had once worked at the plant. You will surely be more surprised by what I learned than I was. The dreamer, according to you a worker like all the rest, Marc Glavni, is one of the more important bureaucrats in the state apparatus; he has been on the central committee of the state planning commission for several years. They found my ignorance more surprising than I found the news; I had to admit I never looked into newspapers. They were even more surprised when I asked about Adrian Povrshan. “Don't you listen to the radio either?” one person asked. I do listen to the radio occasionally but apparently I'm not very attentive. Our friend Adrian, to whom you say the spirit of liberation once spread, gives frequent speeches over the radio and is a well-known politician “of the new type,” I was told. Like old Sedlak I can no longer distinguish between politicians.
One woman also knew Jasna Zbrkova and this surprised me a great deal more, not because Jasna has become rich and famous too, but because she teaches in Yara's school and lives in my neighborhood. I could have asked Yara about her; Jasna could just as well have asked Yara about me. I rushed to the school as soon as I left the plant.
When Yara came out of school she thought I'd come to walk her home and was pleased, since I had never done that before. I told her I had just learned an old friend of mine taught in her school.
“Do I know her?” Yara asked.
“I suppose so,” I answered. “It's Jasna Zbrkova.”
“Oh, not her!” Yara said, intensely disappointed. “She was the last one to join us; she stayed out of every demonstration except the last and she came out a week ago only because it's become fashionable.”
I saw Jasna come out of the school while Yara was still speaking and I didn't have time to respond to Yara's perfect description; I would have told her, “Yes, that's the one, that's exactly the person I knew.”
Jasna looked twenty years older. I don't think I would have recognized her if I hadn't been looking for her. She seemed embarrassed to see both of us. She greeted Yara politely. Then she ran to embrace me and burst out crying. With a voice muffled by sobs she said, “Thank god it's finally over!” Letting me go, she embraced Yara and told her, “And thank you for being the most mature and the most courageous of all of us!” Jasna began to apologize profusely to Yara and to me although neither of us had said anything. She admitted having known for years that Yara was my daughter; she apologized for never having told Yara that she knew me. She had known when I was released and that I was home. “I wanted very badly to come to see you,” she told me. Turning to Yara she continued, “Just as I wanted very badly to take part in the first two demonstrations. But I stayed away. I was afraid. I was imprisoned too, not as long as Yarostan, but long enough to have filled the rest of my life with fear of being arrested.”
I told Jasna about my correspondence with you and asked if she remembered you and Luisa and Sabina.
“I could no more forget them than I could forget you!” she said. “It's because I remember all of you that I began to hate myself for my fear and cowardice, for staying away from the students and the demonstrations; I felt I was betraying not only the students but everything and everyone I loved.”
I asked if she was still afraid to visit our house.
“If you hadn't come today I would have come to see you,” she answered. “The spell broke a week ago. I'm no longer afraid. What kept me from coming yesterday or the day before was no longer fear of arrest but embarrassment; I couldn't face your brave Yara; I was ashamed of being such a coward.”
Yara reached for the teacher's hand and held it in her own; she had apparently become convinced she had misjudged our comrade.
“That fear is so irrational, so senseless and yet it holds you as if you were locked into a box,” Jasna explained. “But as soon as I took part in that demonstration a week ago the fear vanished as if I had suddenly left the box. It was wonderful! Just like old times!”
To find out if she was really saying what you've been saying in your letters I asked her, “Just exactly like old times?”
The same Jasna whom you and I remember answered, “No, it wasn't really like old times at all. This was completely different. These kids have far more courage than I ever had. I never did anything unless I thought everyone else was doing the same thing. The kids began completely on their own when no one was on their side, when they didn't know what would happen to them, when all the officials and teachers were against them. And Yara was among the first.”
I asked Jasna if she ever saw any of the people you and I had known. She said she had seen Titus Zabran regularly over the years. She also knew something about all the others and promised to tell me about them when she visits us; all she said about them was, “They're all doing better than I am.”
That evening I told Mirna about my visit to the plant and about Jasna. I decided to accept the workers' generous invitation and go back to work in the carton plant. I asked Mirna if she would quit her job when I started working. She said she wouldn't dream of it.
When I spoke to Mirna about my intense desire to visit the recently formed political prisoners' club she again said such a visit would only cause more trouble than it could possibly be worth. However when I mentioned Jasna's reluctance to visit us and the reason for her reluctance, Mirna said, “It's one thing to be afraid to take part in a demonstration. If Yara had asked for my permission I'd never have given it to her. But it's terrible to be afraid to visit old friends. She was my brother's friend! She should have come to see me long before you were released.”
“Don't you see I have as much reason to visit the prisoners club?” I asked. My concern wasn't to have her permission but to calm her fears. Mirna was once as reckless and adventurous as Yara; two decades of “paradise” have made her fearful, cautious and resigned.
I went to the prisoners' club the following day. I had the impression I was visiting the underworld of the ancient Greeks, the place where people went after they died. Everyone in the room turned to look at every newcomer; on every face there was the same question: is this another ghost of a former friend? Newcomers continually shouted with glee as they recognized their former friends. It was very moving. Men and women mostly older than I continually called out the names of people they suddenly recognized. People who had met in prison wept, people who hadn't seen each other for twenty years embraced. Each thought the other had long been dead. But it wasn't Hades. The people I saw were very much alive. They all expressed the same sense of relief I had felt everywhere else: “It's finally over!” These people were not spirits meeting in the underworld but living beings dancing on a tomb; the tomb contains what you call our project. These people are at last emerging from that project's spell, ridding themselves of its power; you are among the last who are still in a trance.
I didn't long remain an outsider observing a ceremony but quickly became one of the celebrants.
“Yarostan!” someone shouted, someone I didn't recognize. He was a grey-haired man who looked over sixty. When he embraced me and shook me to make sure I was alive, I was overwhelmed. I recognized him. “Zdenek Tobarkin!” I shouted.
I first met this one-time union organizer during my first prison term. I had thought he wasn't much older than I. He's aged terribly. He briefly told me about his experiences after his release; they were quite different from mine. He was released a few months after my first release. He too was turned down by a union bureaucrat when he tried to get his former job back. But many workers at his plant remembered him. They threatened to strike if he wasn't reinstated. What happened then was almost unheard of in those days. The workers won. Zdenek was rehired. He told me he then spent several weeks trying to locate me; he even asked a friend to do research in union files. He laughed when I told him I had become Miran Sedlak, a newly-arrived peasant.
“I've been shuffling from home to work and back home again. The only extraordinary thing I've done over these years was to come to this prisoners' club,” he told me. “It's not the prisons that have to be exposed. Wherever there are prisons they're going to be the same. What has to be exposed is the activity that led workers to put up with the imprisonment of their comrades, to accept without struggle the complete destruction of their rights and the constant police surveillance.”
I asked him what forms these exposures might take and he said, “I don't know but I do know it will be the most useful work I've done in my life.”
My views had been similar to Zdenek's when we'd first met. I was intensely happy to learn he had undergone a similar change as I and that we again had a similar outlook. He's as convinced as I am that the type of activity to which we were, committed when we first met lies at the root of the relations which have shackled us. This activity is precisely the experience which for you has become a standard by which you judge your present practice. You've intoxicated yourself with that experience and you're offended by my attempt to understand its nature. But if we refuse to see where it led us. we can hardly avoid reproducing the same outcome over and over again. If we're to avoid that outcome, we should confront the elements that led to it, expose them, uproot them and bury them. Please understand that I'm not devising an argument to throw at you or Luisa. I'm trying to describe a process in which not only Zdenek and I but most of the people around me are engaged. This process is an extensive examination of the roots of our submission. If I find that my own past activity is one of those roots then I have to expose that activity along with all the other roots.
I first met Zdenek in prison about a year after you and I were arrested. Halfway through a meal I started listening to a discussion taking place at the other end of the table. Someone said that before the war the union had fought for workers' interests and secured the workers' share of the social output. Another person said unions had always been pliant instruments in the hands of the most influential sections of the ruling class and that our newly-installed state-run unions were different only in degree but not in kind from all other unions. A third person — this was Zdenek — argued that the pre-war as well as the post-coup unions were not workers' unions at all but capitalist organizations within the working class. He said a genuine union was an instrument for the appropriation of society's productive forces by the workers; an organization which consisted of racketeers who enriched themselves by selling labor power and assisted the police in disciplining workers was not a genuine union. In Zdenek's argument I recognized what I had learned from Luisa and I looked for opportunities to talk to him. For several months Zdenek and I talked continually during exercise sessions and during meals. He was fascinated by my accounts of Luisa's experiences; in my descriptions of those events he saw a reflection of his own activities as a union organizer.
Zdenek had been active in union politics, in the same plant where he still works today, already before the war. During the war he had been a member of a resistance organization. After the war he was appointed to a minor union post. He never tired of explaining to me that, although he identified with the union bureaucracy at the time, he took his function seriously only with respect to the workers' demands and fought to increase wages and improve safety standards and working conditions; he didn't take seriously the directives that came from the top regarding work discipline and productivity. His first major political engagement coincided with yours and mine — but unlike you and me, Zdenek was a member of the union bureaucracy. He took seriously the state propaganda about dangerous reactionary circles who threatened to deprive workers of their rights and institute a repressive military regime. He engaged himself in the official struggle to neutralize those reactionary circles by mobilizing workers to demonstrate and strike. He knew that workers did not initiate the strikes and demonstrations since the initiatives were instructions handed down to him by union officials. But he didn't question his role; he was convinced that the threat had to be removed and that the strikes and demonstrations were appropriate responses to it.
Zdenek initiated the strike at his plant, called for the expulsion of the manager and personally accompanied the delegation that carried out the expulsion. Although he had become critical by the time he told me about these events, he communicated the enthusiasm he had felt at the time they had taken place. He attended the congress of works councils as the official delegate for his plant. “Hundreds of delegates arrived,” I remember him telling me; “We decided to declare a general strike, and only ten votes were recorded against it.” Although I don't remember his descriptions word for word, his summary of his experiences was very similar to yours; he considered this the greatest event in his life; “The event released a surge of contentment, enthusiasm and initiative throughout the working population; at last we were going to run our own affairs, at last the people were masters, nobody would be able to exploit our efforts for their own ends, nobody would be able to decieve us, sell us to our enemies or betray us.” He remained enthusiastic when, at least in appearance, armed workers occupied radio stations, post and telegraph offices, railway stations. When action committees and workers' militias sprang up in every factory and every public institution he thought the workers' community had been born.
Zdenek didn't begin to have doubts until he was ousted from his union post. A new plant council was appointed and he was excluded from it. Zdenek himself hadn't been elected either but had been appointed by resistance politicians and he had never questioned his own right to the post he occupied. As he narrated this he was bitter about the fact that he became critical of his own usurpation only after he was himself usurped. Zdenek was excluded because a temporary trade union council had appointed itself as an organ higher than the plant council; this temporary body consisted exclusively of workers who had been members of one organization: the government party. The temporary body then proceeded to appoint a new plant council consisting of workers who were members of the same party or who were at least enthusiastic sympathizers. Zdenek was popular among workers for his consistent defense of their interests as workers but he was known as a critic of the government party. The newly appointed plant council then proceeded to elect a new trade union council and voted back the very individuals who had previously appointed the plant council; by this maneuver the status of the trade union council was legitimized as an organ higher than the plant council and therefore empowered to appoint the members of the plant council. Zdenek set out on a lone campaign to expose these machinations but his exposures had no effect. Workers who knew him merely winked knowingly and reminded him that he hadn't made such critiques when he had been a creature of self-appointed politicians. He had known about these things all along but hadn't concentrated on them during the years when he had himself been part of the machinery. By the time I met him he couldn't say enough about the spurious nature of the workers' victory or the orchestrated character of the strikes and demonstrations. It was from Zdenek I learned that the initiative in those events didn't come from the workers themselves, that the enthusiasm was artificially stimulated by seasoned bureaucrats, that instructions were skilfully transmitted from the top of the political hierarchy to the rank and file. In my last letter I tried to summarize what I learned from Zdenek but your response to my description of the puppets and puppeteers makes me aware that I failed to communicate what I learned. Zdenek's descriptions were filled with vivid details; having himself played a role in stimulating the artificial enthusiasm he was intimately familiar with the ways in which this was done; he knew perfectly well how the decisions to demonstrate and to strike had been reached.
I still remember every detail of one of his descriptions. Several days before a scheduled union meeting he was informed by the local secretary of the government party that on the day of the union meeting several plants were going to proclaim themselves on strike in opposition to the machinations of reactionary circles. Since Zdenek was glad to learn this, seeing it as an appropriate response to a real threat, on the day of the meeting he was the first to speak in favor of proclaiming the strike. Three or four others immediately followed with speeches in favor of the strike and a couple of minutes after the last speech the decision to go on strike was unanimously acclaimed. The decision which had been transmitted to Zdenek by the secretary of the local organization had been transmitted by the same secretary to the three others who spoke in favor of it. The decision had obviously been transmitted to the local secretary by the regional secretary, since otherwise the local secretary couldn't have known ahead of time that several other plants were going to make identical decisions on the same day. When the strike broke out and almost all plants were on strike when the day began, it became clear that not a single one of these strikes was a spontaneous gesture of solidarity; it became obvious that the decision to strike had originated yet higher, that it was the decision of the general secretary of the organization, who was at that time jockeying for the post of prime minister. The decision had originated at the peak of the state apparatus and by transmitting it, Zdenek had been a state agent.
Only after he was arrested did Zdenek realize that all the demonstrations and strikes, all the shows of force by armed workers, had a similar origin; only then did he lose his enthusiasm for the events that had taken place. The plant militias and action committees, which he had earlier seen as detachments of armed workers spontaneously created by the workers as organs of struggle and self-defense, were composed exclusively of workers who had long been members of the same organization that ousted him from his post. In jail he realized that the members of this organization had succeeded in becoming the only armed body in every factory and public institution. Since the police was by then under the command of the same organization, the role of the action committees, militias and other groups of armed workers was to act as an adjunct to the police. He realized that the entire movement of armed workers had not constituted a workers' community but a gigantic police network, that whole sections of the working class had been recruited to do police work, that under the banners of the self-liberation of the' working class workers had attacked and arrested other workers.
What Zdenek realized was that he had played his part, not in a victory of the workers' movement but in its complete defeat. What pained him even more was the realization that this defeat had annihilated everything the workers had won during all the earlier decades of struggle: militant workers who had fought for workers' demands were all jailed; workers lost the right to strike; the possibility of forming independent workers' organizations was destroyed. Although Zdenek had helped inflict this defeat as a member of the union apparatus, at the time of our discussions he still didn't grasp the role his activity as union organizer had played in this defeat. His outlook was identical to the position Luisa still expresses today. He blamed himself only marginally and only for his blindness; he blamed external elements for the defeat. He argued that the workers' real union had been transformed into a sham union, that the real workers' movement had been replaced by a simulated workers' movement which in fact consisted of politicians and bureaucrats. The politicians had infiltrated the workers' union and destroyed it from within; they had taken over and then derailed the real workers' movement. Zdenek felt that he and the rest of the workers had been betrayed. Instead of taking over the plants and running them on their own the workers had replaced a Zagad only to find themselves bossed by a Genghis Khan. They had averted the military and police dictatorship which was to be carried out by reactionary circles that later turned out to have been pure inventions of propagandists, and found themselves surrounded by the military and the police, by an immensely enlarged police which included former friends, fellow workers, relatives and neighbors in its ranks.
Throughout his prison term Zdenek remained convinced that the real workers' movement was still alive, that workers could still revitalize the union, that all they had to do was to oust the alien elements that had infiltrated it. At the end of his term he was as much of a missionary as I was. He left prison with the enthusiasm of the first union organizers. His mission was to expose what the workers didn't know: that they had been duped, that agents of the state and racketeers had taken over their union and made it serve their own ends. He was as convinced as you and Luisa that his past experiences, intentions and hopes were an adequate basis for his relations with others. His aim was to return to the struggle as it had been before these external forces derailed it from its real course and temporarily defeated it.
Zdenek was always bitter about the fact that he didn't begin to reexamine his past until after he lost his union post. Even when I talked to him only a few days ago he insisted he would still be a trade union bureaucrat today if he hadn't been ousted twenty years ago and that he wouldn't have developed any critical insights if he had continued to carry out his official function. He admits he would sooner or later have been removed from the apparatus because he would have continued to use his position to further the workers' interests whenever this could be done. But he says that if the apparatus had been flexible enough to allow him to do only that, he would never have turned against it on his own.
When I first met him, his critique was similar to yours. His earlier hopes and projects as a union organizer were the basis for his commitment and he didn't try to examine the nature of his earlier activity. He defended the union not only as an instrument with which workers could appropriate the productive forces but as the only instrument suitable for this task. He rejected councils and all other forms of workers' organizations. He didn't classify councils into genuine and spurious types but held that all councils could be manipulated by any well-organized group of politicians. He insisted that councils were by nature local organizations whereas the union was a mass organization and therefore was less susceptible to being used by an outside group. He held on to these views even though he had watched a political group use councils as well as unions as the instruments with which it destroyed everything Zdenek had fought to build.
When I saw Zdenek at the prisoners' club a few days ago he had changed his mind about virtually everything he had defended when I first met him. I didn't have much of a chance to talk to him because he got involved in an argument which became quite heated and which lasted most of the evening. We exchanged addresses and he agreed to visit me in the near future. I learned from his arguments that he has reached conclusions very similar to my present outlook. The argument began when an elderly man overheard Zdenek tell me, “The very language we once used has to be demystified; terms like workers' movement, union, popular will should be abandoned until humanity regenerates itself and knows what it means by them.”
“That sounds like an ambitious project, my friend; it would require organizational resources that are not available to us at present,” said the man; I later learned he had once been a politician, had been arrested as a member of an inexistent oppositional organization and had been an elementary school teacher since his release.
Zdenek turned to the man and snapped, “Organizational resources are one of the things we don't need; that's yet another mystification.”
“I don't understand you,” the teacher said. “Terms like workers' movement and union have been transformed into synonyms of the word state. They must be demystified; their real meanings have to be restored. This requires some type of organization, minimally some type of publishing activity.”
“That wasn't what I meant,” Zdenek said, “Those terms don't have any real meanings. Perhaps demystification is the wrong word. Perhaps they have to be eliminated altogether. Each of those terms and countless others, including the word organization, refer to opposites. Take the word union. It refers at one and the same time to all workers and to the politicians who speak in the name of the workers. It's exactly the same type of term as commonwealth, which seems to refer to all human beings and to the world they share whereas in practice it refers only to the monarchs who ruled over human beings throughout history.”
“I agree with you,” the teacher said. “There's no question that countless terms have been distorted out of recognition. But surely you're not denying that some kind of organized activity is required to combat this. I don't mean an organization of experts or a circle of intellectuals. I'm referring to an organization that transforms language by transforming reality itself, like the workers' organizations of the past, councils, unions and other forms which workers found useful in their struggle.”
Zdenek raised his voice. “Those organizations were never useful to workers. Unions as well as councils were useful only to politicians. All the forms you mention are forms which allowed politicians to make themselves representatives of the working people, embodiments of the workers' movement. You missed my comparison with a commonwealth. Just as in a commonwealth, the monarchs of a union speak for, dominate, repress and sell their subjects.”
“That's of course true today, but —”
Zdenek interrupted the teacher and shouted, “That's true whenever working people lose control over the language they use, whenever their very thoughts are couched in terms they don't understand, terms like organization!”
“But that's ridiculous,” the teacher objected. “You seem to want every generation to destroy the language and invent one of its own.”
“Maybe that's exactly what I want,” Zdenek said. “For people to destroy the language along with all the other conditions they're born into, for every generation to shape its own world and invent its own language. How can we talk of a revolution in which people reshape their world if we can't even imagine people shaping their own language? How can people shape anything if they never leave the world they're born into?”
“How can you even communicate with people if you don't agree to use the language they use?” the teacher asked.
“Do you think you communicate anything when you do use that language?” Zdenek asked.
“Of course there's a vicious circle in the whole problem of communication, but it's not as closed as you make it seem,” the teacher said. “I'm obviously aware that the language of an epoch expresses the ideas of the ruling class, but this has never meant that it is therefore impossible to find support for a struggle against the ruling class; this has never meant that a disciplined revolutionary organization need be permanently trapped in your vicious circle.”
“Hasn't it meant that? Really never?” Zdenek asked. “I'm under the impression that this was always the case. The very organizers of such a struggle are the instruments who restore the ruling class. Whether it's a question of unions or councils or workers' movements, the organizers' very language already embodies relations between rulers and ruled, relations of domination and submission. What in the world do you think support and discipline mean?”
“Please don't identify my words with the words of the ruling politicians,” the teacher insisted. “I'm talking about opposition to the ruling order.”
“You're talking about support for the politicians who head the organization,” Zdenek insisted. “When I support the organization's leading politicians I make their enemies my enemies, I become suspicious of their enemies and in the end I even become grateful to the police for liquidating people who were never my enemies but enemies of the organization's leaders. You're talking about the ruling order, not about opposition to it.”
While Zdenek spoke I was again reminded of Claude's suspicion of George Alberts twenty years ago. You made a great deal out of the fact that Alberts was a strange person and that therefore it wasn't surprising if people were suspicious of him. Claude's or my suspicion of Alberts had nothing to do with Alberts' personality or with his acts. I was making the same point Zdenek made. My suspicion illustrated the fact that I, like Claude, had become an instrument of the authorities, that I had come to think of their enemies as my enemies. The fact that Alberts had shortcomings is as irrelevant as the fact that Sabina had an exaggerated idea of his virtues. This had nothing to do with Claude's or with my suspicion. What was Alberts to me?
Everyone in the room was listening to the debate and Zdenek was shouting. I don't know how many people agreed with what Zdenek was saying, but I do know that everyone understood what he was talking about; he was damning the role he had played in the establishment of the ruling system. “When you talk about support you talk about obedience,” Zdenek continued. “When you talk about a disciplined organization you're talking about people who transmit instructions from the higher ups to those lower down.”
“In present-day historical circumstances it is impossible to overthrow a ruling social order without discipline and organization,” the teacher objected.
“But my good fellow.” Zdenek shouted, “don't you see that it's impossible to overthrow a ruling social order with organization and discipline? What you're talking about is the reinstatement of the ruling order, not its overthrow. We begin by fighting, not for each other and for ourselves, but for the organization, and we end by suspecting and fighting each other; at the end it is neither your will nor my will that determines decisions but the will of the state: decisions are implemented at the end not by you and me but by the central organ of the state's will: the police! At that point our plant militias and trade union councils and action committees cease to be our instruments for overthrowing the ruling order and become the state's instruments for repressing us. At that point our own initial commitments jump back at us as the state's commitments.”
“That's of course what happened here,” the teacher admitted. “But what happened here was due to very specific historical circumstances which you leave totally out of account. You forget that the ruling clique used a great deal of chicanery and double-talk to secure its power and that it was largely through this chicanery that they took the workers' organizations away from the workers and transformed them into their own instruments.”
“I don't think it's that simple and I don't think chicanery is a good word,” Zdenek said. “Chicanery suggests a one-sided relationship and what I experienced was two-sided. I suspect you were among those who helped the present clique to power —”
“Yes, I, but —”
Zdenek cut him short saying, “So was I. And I don't remember thinking either that I was duped by those above me or that it was my task to dupe those below me. Do you? I transmitted instructions and waited for the world to change, for factories to be transformed, for the state to disappear, for capitalism to crumble. What was I doing to make all this happen? Transmitting instructions. What were you doing?”
“Of course —”
“Of course,” Zdenek interrupted again. “Weren't we all? Was I a victim of chicanery? No, I was perfectly aware of what was happening. I was transmitting instructions, the next person was transmitting them further, and eventually we all acted them out. As for the factories, the state and capitalism, I assumed as everyone around me assumed that someone would take care of all that if I took good care of what I was doing. And who was to take care of all that while I was busy carrying out my instructions? The organization, of course! The councils! The union! The workers' movement! I'm powerless but the organization is all-powerful! Its power and its efficacy were constantly being verified. Don't you remember what proved the power and efficacy of the organization? The efficiency with which it removed enemies. Here was one, there was another, right in our midst! The organization removed them both. Thank god the organization knows how to recognize them! Thank god the organization removed them! Thank god the organization knows what it is doing and knows how to bring about my goals! The organization will remove the emperor, the capitalists, the state, the police, and in their place will institute a new world. All I have to do is obey the instructions and stay at my post.”
At this point in Zdenek's tirade I thought of the comments you had made in your letter. You and I, after all, merely carried our signs at the appointed time and the appointed place; did we think that our walks with those signs would undermine the ruling order or that with our motions we were building a new world? And if we weren't destroying the old world and building the new with our acts then who was doing this? I'm convinced we were among those Zdenek described.
“It was the same all along the organizational line. The working class had risen, the workers were moving. But we all looked above to see motion. For all of us only the top moved. Its motion was confirmed by acts of repression. Our enemies were rounded up and the defeat of those enemies was our victory and our only victory. Soon we thought the victory over those enemies was the ultimate victory. But where had we moved and where had we started? Didn't we notice that the enemies who were wiped out had never been our enemies? Did we forget that the enemy we started combatting was the situation into which we were born? That situation remained intact yet we experienced a victory. Victory against enemies. Which enemies? Not mine. Groups hostile to the leading group were wiped out and when the last group of enemies was wiped out and victory was proclaimed we found ourselves face to face with the police, the outfit that liquidated the enemies. The only thing our struggle for liberation didn't bring about was our liberation. The police were the only victors. We didn't recover our lost powers, we didn't become communal beings, we didn't even begin to communicate with each other, we didn't constitute ourselves into a community that determined its Own relations, environment and direction. You can't tell me that I was duped. I was wide awake. If I was duped then I duped myself; no one used chicanery on me. I myself fought for the victory of the entities that held me in their grip, the unions and workers councils, the movement — entities which have as much to do with human life as saints and angels. These words —”
This time the teacher interrupted Zdenek. “That's the most consistently nihilistic analysis I've ever heard. First you identify the workers' organizations with the police and then you claim that unions and councils are religious organizations.”
“Precisely,” Zdenek said. “What you call workers' organizations are mere words. Unions, councils, movements — they're words on banners carried by opportunists, racketeers and gangsters as well as inquisitioners and executioners. We, you and I and probably the majority of the people in this room, at one time or another marched behind those banners; we provided the backing, the mask that enabled those gang leaders to call themselves the union, the council and the workers' movement. Thanks to our discipline and support the unions and the politicians became the same entity, the struggle to build a new world became synonymous with the seizure of power by the political racketeers. And in the act of supporting inquisitioners and jailers we became powerless and acquiescent things, at most cannon fodder in their struggles. Only our representatives had the power to act. Our own independent action became impossible and inconceivable. Call it what you like. Our role was to reintroduce religion into a world where it had been dying. We helped empty human beings of their humanity, we helped turn their humanity into an image, a word which we carried in our heads; we dislodged the real potentialities of people from their real gestures and lodged them in the heads of priests. You understood me perfectly. Union, council, movement — all our favorite words became synonyms of heaven. But we never saw heaven. All we saw was the witch hunts and the purges and we thanked the powers of heaven for liquidating imaginary beings which we experienced as the only evil that oppressed us.”
It wasn't hard for me to imagine the experiences which had led Zdenek to those conclusions. His experiences must have been similar to mine. The entire environment that surrounded us in prison was filled with meanings we failed to grasp. We didn't look or listen. We were spellbound by images we carried in our heads. We failed to grasp the meaning of the walls or the guards or the interrogations; we failed to draw conclusions when we experienced what a human being became when he had total power over another.
Zdenek and I were together during the early part of my first prison term. What I experienced after we were separated should have led me to reexamine my earlier commitments. But I didn't revise them during that term nor during the four years of my first release. I emerged from my first term with an outlook almost identical to your and Luisa's present outlook. Soon after my release, when Jan Sedlak accused me of exaggerating the importance of my clear and distinct ideas, I defended myself with arguments similar to your present arguments. At one point in your letter you said I had given you the impression that I considered myself more observant and more insightful than you. The opposite is true. I held on to conclusions similar to yours in the face of experiences that completely undermined those conclusions; I was neither observant nor insightful; I was blind. I'm unravelling the significance of those experiences only now, almost two decades later; many of my insights are being formulated for the first time only in response to your letter. During the four years of my first prison term I seemed to be two different people: one of them saw, heard and felt events take place, the other responded as if he were deaf and blind. I stored the prison experiences in my memory but my behavior and my outlook weren't affected by them until several years later.
My experience during the first weeks after my arrest was in many ways similar to your experience after your release and emigration, when you found yourself alone in a hostile environment. I was an alien in a world I couldn't understand. The prison authorities seemed like beings of a different species. They were cruel, sadistic and arbitrary; they were incomprehensible to me. These brutes and sadists weren't my likes, they weren't similar to people with whom I had shared hopes and projects, they weren't beings with whom I could communicate. I was filled with anger when I learned that many of the guards had themselves been prisoners during the war and that their most vicious practices were practices they had learned from their jailers.
But the impression that the jailers were a different species didn't stay with me. Many guards had themselves been prisoners and many prisoners had been guards. I soon met prisoners who had been prison or camp authorities or police agents during the war. Their behavior in the cells, in the exercise yard, in the prison corridors and during meals didn't differ from the behavior of other prisoners. They weren't a different species. I even met people who had been jailers only a few months or weeks before I met them and during that brief period had acquired human characteristics totally lacking in jailers. And the first person who became a friend, Zdenek Tobarkin, had been an integral part of the bureaucratic apparatus before his arrest, yet when I met him he was someone whose experiences and outlooks I shared. Did a mutation take place when a person moved from one side of the bars to the other? I'm not saying what you and Luisa understood me to be saying. I don't consider prisoners interchangeable with guards. I'm not suggesting that you and I might have been jailers. Such a hypothesis may or may not be absurd; I don't know; it's not my point to explore it. All I'm saying is that at some point I learned that at least some of the jailers were not a different type of being. Below their social function there was something recognizable. Below the gestures and attitudes they had learned from other jailers I saw other gestures and attitudes. These attitudes hadn't been learned in prisons but on streets and in factories; they referred to experiences I had shared; they indicated that at some time in their lives these people had engaged in a struggle similar to mine, that they had once taken part in strikes and demonstrations, that they had once shared my perspectives and hopes. Of course this wasn't true of all the jailers. Some were so brutalized that they remained the same on both sides of the bars; it wasn't in them that I recognized any trace of myself. The jailers I'm describing were equally brutish in their behavior but the brutality wasn't the only component of their personalities. There was something else, something familiar, something that resembled me. The resemblance wasn't superficial; it didn't consist of a mere similarity of words which in reality had different meanings. What I recognized wasn't the words but the hopes and experiences behind the words. What I recognized was the experience around which you have built your life. I recognized dreams and hopes I had shared with you and Luisa. The role hid the dreams, just as several years later my role as bus driver hid them. Yet as soon as a bureaucrat like Zdenek was dislodged from his post, as soon as a guard was jailed, the person below the mask became visible. Those experiences, hopes and dreams weren't born after the guard was jailed; they had been there all along, masked by the jailer's social role. It's ironic that some of the guards in whom I recognized my own past experiences were the strictest disciplinarians and the cruellest torturers. Habitual sadists were arbitrary and therefore inconsistent and corruptible and sometimes lenient. But those who had once engaged themselves in a struggle similar to mine and who saw themselves as still engaged in it were incorruptible, pitiless and unswerving. They were the strictest guards and the cruellest torturers precisely because they were still committed to that struggle. In their own eyes they weren't cruel but committed. They saw themselves as embodiments of the working class struggle and they saw prisoners as enemies of the working class. Their cruelty wasn't aimed against individuals but against the principle of evil; through them the workers' movement was protecting itself from its enemies. Such jailers were convinced that the struggle you and I had waged had been victorious, that the workers had seized power over all social activity. These jailers saw themselves as the protectors of that victory. The proof of the victory was the fact that people like themselves were in power, people whose words expressed the liberation of the working class, whose brains contained a representation of the self-liberation of the workers. Their power over prisoners was the proof of the success of the project. As Zdenek observed in his argument with the former politician, these were people who had transformed the workers' movement into a religion. They were its priests. They served their religion by suppressing its enemies. Prisons and concentration camps were the living proof of the religion's victory, strict surveillance of inmates was the proof of its vitality and the liquidation of all the enemies would herald its ultimate realization.
Carriers of my own project were my own worst torturers. They were my likes, not in the sense that I could have been like them, but in the sense that they carried the project I had carried. And I was their like, not in the sense that I've ever been the jailer of another human being, but in the sense that I still carried the project in whose name they tortured me. Throughout my prison term I remained committed to the same representations, the same religion; I too was a priest. I didn't grasp the repressive character of my commitment, I didn't see that prisons and concentration camps were outcomes of my religion's victory, not of its defeat.
My previous letter was one-sided. I threw at you conclusions I've reached over a twenty-year period but I didn't describe the experiences which led me to those conclusions. I made it seem that you had intoxicated yourself with illusions which I had never shared and which I found incomprehensible. Actually, despite the fact that I recognized my own project in my jailers and despite the fact that I recognized myself in a former union bureaucrat, my commitment remained unchanged during all the four years of my term and I left prison with the same enthusiasm that you express. I went out into the world determined to spread that project. Your letter angered me because it reminded me how long and how stubbornly I held on to that commitment. You confronted me with attitudes I had only recently rejected. I had never before couched that rejection in words. You weren't far wrong when you said I was carried away by my rhetoric. I was putting into words for the first time what I had just learned and I made it appear that I had always known it. I'm now trying to remedy that one-sidedness by describing the experiences which led me to reject the attitudes I once shared with you. It was only gradually that I learned to see those attitudes as a poor basis for present action. Only after innumerable shocks did I begin to see that such attitudes and such behavior were elements of social relations common to religions, that the concrete outcome of such practice was the palace, the church and the dungeon, and that in an age of fusion and fission such a project was unimaginably repressive.
I experienced another one of these shocks when I learned about our wartime resistance from prisoners who had taken part in it. I met several people besides Zdenek who had “been active in the resistance. Almost every single one of them had become critical of his part in that struggle only after he was excluded from an official function. Before the exclusion they, like Zdenek, had not questioned the nature of their engagement. This fact is very significant but its significance isn't the one Luisa read into my first letter. I don't mean that every victim would have been an executioner if he had only been allowed to remain on his post. The prisoners I met would all have been removed from their posts eventually; they would all have stopped carrying out their official functions at one or another time. Some would have stopped sooner, others later. They were willing to go to a certain line but no further. They differed from each other in terms of where each drew this line. And those who were still carrying out their functions and who therefore seemed so different from the rest of us might draw that line at the next turn or the turn after that. Today's jailers would then join yesterday's victims and be victimized by tomorrow's.
What about you and Luisa and me? Didn't we carry a project up to a point beyond which we refused to carry it? Luisa's answer to my last letter is that the project we carried was insurrection and that my rejection of our former activity is a rejection of insurrection in favor of acquiescence to the ruling order. In other words I'm a traitor, and no one wants to be a traitor. The fear of being considered a traitor is what keeps most of us moving longer than we want in a direction we've started to suspect is wrong. Those of Luisa's accusers who took part in arresting the enemies of the working class but refused to take part in their execution were accused by their previous day's comrades of turning their backs on the revolution, abandoning their commitment, becoming soft and conservative and ultimately of becoming reactionary and counter-revolutionary. We become critical only after we cease to go along, and even then most of us become critical only of the events that took place after we stopped going along.
I met only one individual who fought in the resistance on his own, who had no connection at all with any of the organized resistance groups. I no longer remember his name; I'll call him Anton. When I met him I considered him very different from me and from most of the other people I met. He was completely apolitical. He didn't express dreams or hopes that you and I would have recognized as our own. Anton was a worker a few years older than I. He had many of Ron's traits. He rejected social institutions in practice but not in words. As a boy he had left his family, run away to the city and gotten a job. He rejected all the rules of work and was repeatedly fired for absenteeism and theft. He was evicted from one after another apartment for refusing to pay rent. On the first day of the resistance he joined a group of people who were building a barricade. He hated the militarists who occupied the city and was determined to do all he could to rid the city of them. When the liberation army entered the city he returned to the barricade and continued shooting. He didn't distinguish between the two armies; to him they were the same. For him the resistance hadn't ended. He was arrested immediately as an enemy agent and sentenced to life imprisonment.
It didn't occur to me at the time that if I hadn't met Luisa and if I hadn't learned to express myself in political terms, I might have been very similar to Anton when we met. I myself had fought in the resistance with very few political conceptions. since I hadn't learned a great deal from Titus Zabran or his friends. The only reason I didn't shoot when the “liberators” marched into the city was because of my ignorance; Anton was much better informed than I. When he told me about the events that had preceded the liberation army's entrance into the city I was convinced that if I had known about those events at the time I would have shot too.
Anton's account of the end of the resistance was identical to accounts I had heard from other people who had fought in it and had been informed about the forces in play. But Anton's account was unique and horrifying. Unlike all the other accounts it wasn't couched in the political language that had recently become familiar to me, it didn't contain the qualifications, the ifs, the political interpretations and pseudo-explanations. He described a sequence of events whose significance spoke as loudly as drops of blood dripping from_a wound. No one I've met ever contested the facts of Anton's narrative. All the other accounts I've heard as well as numerous figures I've seen have only confirmed the accuracy of Anton's description down to the smallest details.
“During the first night of the rising, thousands of barricades were built throughout the city, across streets and alleys.” (I am retelling Anton's story from memory.) “The entire city was held by the inhabitants, except for a few sections which were still held by the occupying army. The following day the occupiers mobilized all nearby troops, tanks and artillery against the city. There were at least four heavily armed soldiers for every three poorly armed workers. Resisters dispatched envoys to the two armies which were on their way to `liberate' the city, armies which had been urging the population to rise against the occupiers. Both armies were within a few hours march of the city. Each of them outnumbered the forces of the occupiers. Yet for three days and three nights neither army made a move. Camped so close that they could almost hear the shells explode, they waited while men and women and children were massacred in all the streets of the city. Several thousand people were butchered. Yet people fought with such determination that the occupying forces were defeated; they capitulated at the end of the third day and started to evacuate the city. On the day after the capitulation of the last occupying forces, the so-called army of liberation marched into the city. People who could not have taken part in the rising, who must have stayed in their basements during all the fighting, lost their heads cheering for these liberators. I got behind a wall and started shooting. When I was captured people looked at met as if I was a lunatic. I've often wondered why more people didn't continue shooting when the new occupiers entered the city. The explanation is that most of the people who would have kept on fighting were killed during those three days and nights. The `liberators' waited while people like I were exterminated by the former occupiers. It would have been embarrassing for so-called liberators to begin liberating the city by shooting thousands of its inhabitants. Those who died were those who fought hardest, those who were most exposed, those who would have shot at the next occupiers. And I was called a foreign agent for shooting at a foreign army that marched in and occupied the city.”
Other accounts I heard differed from Anton's only in terms of the meanings into which the same facts were inserted. Some people considered it reasonable that the liberation army had let the occupiers clean up riff-raff like Anton so as not to have to do it themselves; they considered this a necessary purge of dangerous elements carried out without trouble or expense to those who benefitted from it. Most people weren't so crude as to actually justify the massacre. All those I met admitted they had known at the time that the liberation armies were within a stone's throw of the fighting during all three days and nights yet alt of them had cheered when the liberation army marched into the city on the day after the massacre, when it was already liberated. They admitted the facts only after they were jailed. Earlier, when they'd held official posts, they had denied that the liberation army had been anywhere near the city at the time. Yet even when they admitted the facts they didn't admit their significance. They suddenly discovered, in their brains, all kinds of military reasons for the fact that the liberation army hadn't moved: the supply lines were overextended, the rearguard had fallen behind the front lines and left them exposed. They hadn't ever dreamed of invoking these reasons before they were imprisoned. They never faced the contradiction between their knowledge and their cheering. They knew that troops, tanks and artillery had camped nearby while thousands of people were slaughtered. But they refused to see this army as an army. They saw it as the working class movement. What entered the city wasn't tanks and soldiers but the representative of the victory of the working class. It was our dreams, aspirations and hopes that marched into the city. It was the image of our liberation, of our determination to run our lives free of armies and prisons and tanks. This is what these blind comrades saw entering the city when they cheered.
I heard Anton and I sympathized with him, but I didn't learn. I still identified with politicians. Although my own participation in the resistance had been almost identical to Anton's, my later political experiences had transformed me to such an extent that I no longer recognized myself in him. Before I could do this I had to peel off one after another layer of the political skin that had covered up the person who could have recognized himself in Anton. First of all I had to peel off the layer I had acquired from Luisa. This is what Manuel did for me. He didn't actually remove that layer, but he provided me with a vantage point from which I was able to remove it. No, Manuel is not an embodiment of my reactionary arguments: he's not an invention.
Manuel was a prisoner I met during the second year of my term. In an argument with another prisoner, I was defending the revolutionary potential of unions. At one point I referred to an example I had learned from Luisa; I illustrated my case by referring to a historical event in which workers had used the union as an instrument with which to carry on their own struggle. Manuel interrupted my argument. He said he was familiar with the event I was citing because he had fought in it. He said he had once agreed with the position I was defending but that life itself had disabused him of this view; he also said I was supporting my arguments by suppressing nine-tenths of the actual picture.
Manuel grew up in a peasant village. Poverty drove him to the city and he became a transport worker. At the time of the rising of the army against the population he was a member of a small political organization. He explained that he had not joined this organization because he had selected it from among the others nor because he agreed with its program more than with other programs but only because the first worker who became his friend was a member of it. At the time of the rising all the members of Manuel's organization were in the streets along with the rest of the population. In a single day working people from all quarters of the city, having transformed every available implement into a weapon, defeated the army. For an instant, but only for an instant, the population was on the verge of making its own history. For an instant it looked as if the revolution would spread, as if it would continue to grow until it encompassed all working people everywhere, until all the armies of the world were defeated. But the instant was short-lived. While the smoke still filled the air, unknown to the workers who had risked their lives all day and had seen countless friends and relatives slaughtered, a meeting took place. It was something like a private meeting between the government that had been discarded and destroyed during the day, the government that had lost its armed force and ceased to function — between that former government and four or five workers. These were not nameless workers. They were not any four or five among thousands. They were workers who were known as fierce fighters and uncompromising union militants, They were workers who were known not to tolerate any authority whether it be boss or government official. The politician of the ousted old order offered these workers posts in the government. Instead of turning their backs to this wily politician and telling him the workers had just destroyed governments and had become their own masters, these union militants accepted the offer. They told themselves that a government with their presence was no longer a government but a mere organ of the workers' self-government. And they told other workers that they were not a government at all but a revolutionary committee; they said the state had been abolished. And many workers accepted this. For years they had respected and admired these militants, they had come to regard them as leaders, they had seen them as carriers of their own aspirations. They accepted the entry of these militants into the government as their own self-government. When a member of Manuel's own organization accepted a post in this revolutionary committee, Manuel turned in his membership card. He found himself isolated. Gradually he found other people who understood and tried to expose the-fact that the union had not served the workers as an instrument of their liberation but of their reenslavement. Ironically, Manuel was arrested shortly after he quit his small organization; the reason for his arrest was his membership in this organization. It was thanks to this arrest that he was still alive when I met him. He learned later that the other individuals he had met who had tried to expose the incorporation of the union into the state apparatus had all been shot.
In my discussions with Manuel, I countered every observation he made with an observation I had learned from Luisa. I have no idea if he's dead or alive today. At the end of my second year in prison he was transferred to another prison and I never heard of him again. During the brief time I knew him, I defended Luisa's views with such self-assurance that he must have known he wasn't convincing me. He must even have thought that I hadn't heard a single word of his account. I'll probably never be able to tell him that I did hear him, years later, and that his account helped me understand, not only the event he described, but many of my other experiences as well. It was Manuel who helped me understand the difference between the rebel and the philosopher of rebellion, between someone like Ron and someone like Luisa, between workers and the representation of workers by unions, councils, parties and movements. He also helped me see how easily we delude ourselves and take one for the other, how easily we become carriers of the representation and agents of our own repression. But it was only during my second prison term that I began to hear what Manuel had told me. It was only then that I began to compare his account to Luisa's. As soon as I did begin to replace Luisa's account with Manuel's I was able to imagine myself a participant in the events Manuel narrated, just as I had earlier imagined myself a participant in Luisa's narrative. The day when workers filled the streets and began to build barricades couldn't have been very different from the first day of the resistance here. As in my experience, barricades sprang up in every quarter of the city. The main difference was that in Manuel's account there were no liberation armies camped nearby observing our slaughter. This difference doesn't blur the similarity of the events for me because I didn't know about those armies at the time.
Imagine that we're among neighbors and friends, that during the course of a day and a half we rid the city of the last militarists. Imagine the city is ours to shape with each other as we shaped the barricades. We'll organize our social activity with each other in terms of our dreams. If the possibilities to realize all our dreams don't exist we'll create the possibilities. We'll communicate with each other, we'll coordinate with each other, we'll organize with each other — without politicians who speak for us, without coordinators who manipulate us, without officials who organize our activity. To communicate with each other we hold large and small meetings where we exchange suggestions, initiate projects, solve problems. At the largest meeting, we attentively listen to the protects of all, the decisions of all. Yet when we leave the largest of all the meetings we all feel cheated, we feel that something has been taken from us, that something, somewhere has gone wrong. At that mammoth meeting we listened to speeches given by our union militants, by workers who had fought alongside us, who had always been the first to attack. Many such militants have died. We listened to them as we had always listened to them: as our voices, as the formulators of our deepest aspirations, as comrades and fellow workers who had always before put into words the decisions of the union, the decisions of all the workers. Yet at this meeting the decisions of all the workers were unlike the decisions we had been making with each other since the day we built the barricades; the projects of all the workers were unlike the projects we had launched with each other, whether it was to repair disabled vehicles or to appropriate a restaurant so as to prepare our own meals. At this meeting the most militant, admirable and courageous of our comrades, standing and sitting on the speakers' platform, were transformed into something we cannot quite understand. We had come to the meeting in order to organize social activity with each other and we found our organization on the platform. We had come to coordinate activity with each other and we found five coordinators on the platform. We had come to formulate our collective decisions and we heard our collective decisions formulated from the platform. We had always before listened to the collective decisions formulated and expressed from the platform. Yet now we pause, look around and ask ourselves what it was we had always before listened to. We begin to realize that the decisions of all the workers, the decisions of the union, were the decisions of the secretary of the union, of one individual. One, perhaps five, at most ten individuals had expressed our aspirations, formulated our projects, made our decisions. Yet who are they, those influential militants we had so greatly admired? What is this union? Who is the secretary of the union? Is this really our union or is it a sham? It's our real union. It's the same union it has always been. The people on the platform are the very people who should be on the platform. They're the militants who devoted their lives to us, who always fought alongside us in our struggles to govern ourselves, to reshape our own social activity, to define the content of our own lives. This is the union we've known; it hasn't turned into a sham; it hasn't been betrayed. It's we who changed. We changed the day before yesterday. Not all of us. Maybe only miserably few of us. We suddenly discovered our own and each other's humanity only yesterday, and we began to act as a human community. And today we suddenly realize that this union we had fought to build and whose victory we assured the day before yesterday is not our project at all. It's not a human community. It's a power above us, as alien and hostile as the powers we've just overthrown. And now we realize that the project of the people on the platform is about to replace the projects of thousands of human beings who only yesterday learned they had the ability to initiate projects. We become nauseated when we realize we've just taken part in an event which robbed us of the fruit of our struggle, an event in which the representatives of the union of all the workers replaced the union of all the workers. The union has robbed thousands of workers of their eyes, ears and voices only one day after they had learned to use organs which had until then grown weak and passive from disuse. We're learning, and we're nauseated because we're learning too late. Couldn't one of us have gotten up at that vast meeting and shouted? Couldn't he have asked why the influential militants were on the platform the day after we had eliminated the need for influential militants as well as platforms? Would anyone have heard? Was it already too late even then? Should those questions have been raised years earlier, should we have shouted them during the days when we ourselves helped build the workers' organizations and the influential militants in whose grip we now find ourselves? At that meeting we acquiesced in our own reenslavement, we accepted the reconstitution of the entire state apparatus. The influential militants who argued that their presence in the state apparatus was equivalent to the abolition of the state will quickly become engulfed by the apparatus, they'll soon be ministers. As rulers they'll differ in no way from earlier or later rulers. The politicians will let our militants call themselves whatever they please, even representatives of the abolition of the state. These miserable politicians know that they need the influence our comrades exert among us to rebuild the state apparatus. As soon as the legitimacy of that apparatus is reestablished those seasoned politicians will skillfully use our comrades the way craftsmen use tools. They'll transform the one-time union militants into agents of the state. They'll use the former workers to turn one group of workers against another. They'll use the influential militants as trouble-shooters; they'll send them to disarm the workers, turning us once again into helpless victims of the army and the police. And like classic monarchs, the influential militants, our onetime comrades, will lull us back to sleep with speeches in which they glorify their rule. They'll tell us their presence in the state apparatus is equivalent to the victory of the working class and the realization of Utopia on earth. And some of them will go to greater lengths than any monarch who ever said: I am the people. Some of our influential former comrades will not only tell us their rule is our rule but also that their presence in the government is equivalent to the realization of all humanity's deepest aspirations.
Manuel's account destroyed the picture Luisa had drawn for me. I'm obviously not surprised by Luisa's response to my rejection of her analysis of her first struggle. I'm not surprised she considers my rejection of her struggle a rejection of all struggle, nor that she considers Manuel reactionary. Manuel's account shows that the sequence of events celebrated by Luisa didn't lead to the triumph of the workers but to their repression. Luisa is using the word reactionary the way politicians use it: all those who challenge the politicians' premises are reactionary. In my understanding a reactionary is a person who favors a return to an earlier system of social relations, an earlier mode of being, an earlier form of political engagement. If the term is to define Manuel or me it has to be drastically redefined. All my life I've rejected all earlier systems of social relations including the one I was born into, all earlier modes of living, and for the past ten years I've been rejecting my own earlier forms of political engagement. Since Luisa introduced this term I no longer see any need to keep myself from asking who among us glorifies, intoxicates herself with, an earlier form of political engagement? Who among us makes a virtual Utopia out of a miserable practice that has repeatedly led to the physical and spiritual destruction of those engaged in it? Who among us uses repressive activities of the past as guides to the present and future? If I had thought about it during the past ten years I would have known that I would never again be able to have a comradely or even a polite conversation with Luisa unless she too changed. I knew this as soon as I began to grasp the significance of Manuel's narratives. Yet I learn from your letter that Luisa knew this much earlier, perhaps as many as twenty years ago. You don't seem to realize you told me this. You tell me George Alberts had considered me a hooligan; you tell me this illustrates the similarity of Alberts' outlook with that of my jailers. You also tell me what Luisa thought of Alberts' opinion of me: “Alberts was right.” Did she already consider me a destructive hooligan twenty years ago?
Manuel helped clear my mind of everything I had learned from Luisa. But I had to undergo many other shocks before I could come to grips with the significance of what he told me.
During the third year of my first term, several months after Manuel had been transferred to another prison, all the cells filled to capacity. Workers from a small industrial town were crowded into every cell. I had the impression that the inhabitants of a whole town had been rounded up and jailed. All of these workers were furious. I had never before seen so many prisoners with so much spirit and so much anger. They refused to stop shouting during the day or night. They gave the impression they were determined to bend the steel bars and dismantle the stone walls of the prison. After a few weeks most of them were released, while a few of them were separated from each other and sentenced to incredibly long prison terms. For the first time since the resistance the workers of a whole town had risen. As far as I remember there had been nothing extraordinary about the circumstances that led to the rising: working conditions went from bad to worse, jobs were unsafe, real incomes were falling, houses were deteriorating. But the response of the workers grew to proportions which made this event unique in our recent history. All the workers of the town went on strike and demonstrated their discontent. Unlike workers at previous or later demonstrations, these workers called for the abolition of the political police, the abolition of the factory managers, the abolition of union representatives. In Luisa's language, all these workers were hooligans; all their demands were destructive. They called for nothing less than the abolition of the ruling system. One worker proudly told me, “When a union rep got on” a platform and started lecturing' about the victory of the working class, about workers administering their own factories, we carried off the rep, the microphone as well as the platform. When the police came in to clear the streets of workers, we cleared the streets of police. We thought workers everywhere would follow our example.” These workers were more distrustful of politicians and pedagogues than any workers I've met before or since. They trusted only each other; they learned only from each other. They had put an end to the power of representatives, if not throughout society, at least over themselves. “We were able to hold our own against what they call the workers' militia and the workers' police,” the same worker told me. “but we couldn't hold out against the army.” The greatest achievement of technological progress, the army, defeated them. Approximately half the inhabitants of the town were arrested and imprisoned — in the name of the workers' self-administration of their own productive forces. They were repressed by the official representatives of the workers' movement. The repression was organized by pedagogues whose project is the liberation of the working class. These political racketeers presented the repression of these workers as yet another great stride toward the liberation of the workers.
It was the seizure of total power over society's repressive apparatus by pedagogues, philosophers and dreamers that created conditions in which workers were arrested and imprisoned under the banner of their own liberation. Today's fanatics consider human beings obstacles on the paths of their gods. The gods are today called workers but are in fact mental categories lodged in the brains of pedagogues and have nothing in common with living beings. In the name of these gods the earthly representatives of these deities, the politicians, recognize no human or natural limits. For the sake of their deities they depopulate cities and even entire regions. These gods are more jealous than the patriarchal despot Jahweh; they don't only demand the destruction of other gods that threaten to stand beside them; they call for the liquidation of all human beings who refuse to bow to them.
These are conclusions I've drawn from painful experiences. I didn't draw them easily and I think I can therefore understand why you haven't come to such conclusions. All the experiences of my first prison term didn't affect my outlook until several years later. During those four years I had learned how workers had been transformed into police detachments which repressed other workers; I had met prison guards whose conceptions had once been identical to my own; I had learned that we had embraced as liberators those who allowed our comrades to be massacred; from Manuel I had learned that all groups and organizations that embody the aspirations of others can only be victorious by repressing those aspirations; I had met workers who had risen against all forms of representation and had found themselves face to face with the entire repressive apparatus of society. Yet after all those experiences I left prison like a new organizer. It was at the end of those four years that I carried my insight and my project to Mirna and her parents, determined to communicate to them, not what I had experienced in prison, but the activities my prison experiences had undermined. I went to them as a pedagogue who had learned nothing about the significance of his own teachings: I went to them determined to enact the same drama yet another time.
I think I do understand how you're using what you call your standard of comparison. You're comparing the repressive society that surrounds us with an earlier experience that reproduced the same repression. It seems to me that this experience provides you with a faulty standard of comparison. What you told me about your friend Ron made me think that his genuinely rebellious acts provide a standard of comparison far superior to the orchestrated mass activity which placed the repressive machinery of society in the hands of representatives of human liberation. Your comparison of yourself to Vesna and of your environment to Vesna's cage were very moving. But I'm convinced the experience you've preserved with such care does not give you a vantage point outside the cage. I'm convinced you're looking at the cage from a vantage point inside it. You're doing precisely what you say permanent inmates of a prison can't help but do: you're confusing a corner of the prison with the outside world.
I'd like to learn more about your life. I found your descriptions fascinating and some of your analyses profound and informative. But I won't be converted to your life's central project. I was converted to it once, by Luisa, and I'm still struggling to rid myself of my entanglement with it. I can't honestly say I admire you for holding on to that project so tenaciously and for such a long time.
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