I first started calling myself a revolutionary in a serious way somewhere between a 250-mile Freedom march through the small towns of Mississippi, where I worked with SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) people and the Deacons for Defense, on one hand, and of meeting with Fidel in Cuba for a rambling late-night talk. It wasn’t just the talk, but how we were raced around the city in a zig-zag route, only to appear at a very plain house but with armed guards everywhere in the shadows. ‘Sorry for this,’ Red Beard, Marta Harnecker’s father said to me, ‘but we still practice the ‘clandestine ways, Your CIA is still trying, every day, to kill him.’ I knew it was true. Che was recently captured and killed in Bolivia.
In Mississippi, I learned that the ‘white power structure,’ in that state and elsewhere, would have to be overthrown, by every means necessary, and I had a responsibility to lend a hand. Marxism helped me understand the structures. The existentialism and humanism of Camus meant personal engagement was required for an authentic life. One could not face and live through The Plague as an observer. Seeing the gains of Cuba, and the ongoing need of the revolutionary state to defend itself on a daily basis, caused me to set aside my romantic infatuation with the anarcho-syndicalism of the IWW, while I still admired their courage. I now started to study Lenin for practical ideas on self-defense, on both our organizations and the social gains we made moving toward revolution, however far down the road it might be.
There were other factors. I moved from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to the Guardian, a center for revolutionary news and reports from around the world. I was riveted by the suffering and courage of the Vietnamese, and soon met with them in Montreal and again in Havana. One Vietnamese woman, dressed in flowing silk, took my hand in the Havana Libre hotel lobby and spoke with me about our common struggle. She seemed so gentle, like a doe from the forest. I later learned she was awarded a “fierce anti-Yankee fighter” award for shooting down many planes and capturing any pilots who survived. She maintained a grace that flowed like a gentle stream, but nonetheless never ceased flowing, wearing down even the hardest obstacles, living through the unspeakable horrors of the war.
So, while at the Guardian, I decided to go the next step. I decided to be a ‘professional revolutionary’ as my life’s work. I wasn’t sure all of what that meant, but I would work patiently work away at finding out. At nights, I went through all 44 volumes of Lenin, much more of Marx, all of Mao in English, Gramsci and a few more. I worked with Ted Allen, while he was writing ‘The Invention of the White Race’, in my first ML(Marxist-Leninist) group, Harper’s Ferry, a sister organization to Sojourner Truth. Two years later, Harry Haywood moved in with me, where I helped him finished up with “Black Bolshevik” . We both had joined the October League. From them, I learned the ongoing importance of theory, and how to connect it with practice. A year later, I lived with Martin Nicolaus, as he was translating Marx’s Grundrisse into English. He gave me an important passage to study, especially ‘the Fragment on the Machine,’ where Marx predicts automation and cybernation. He taught me the need for rigor, even if the practical implications were still behind a veil.
From the two older comrades I learned that the revolution was not a sprint, but a marathon. I had to learn to pace myself as a long-distance runner. For them I also learned to never forget who I was, a working-class kid from and oppressive and blue-collar reality in Pittsburgh’s steel towns, where the mill had taken the lives of two of my family members. Ideas would come and go, but this class and racialized reality always kept my feet on the ground. So long as those conditions existed, I could not quit, whatever the ups and down, strengths or weaknesses, of any organization. We would make mistakes. No matter. Many mistakes could be corrected, or you could learn from them. But the biggest mistake of all was to surrender, to give it up. If you did that, you returned to being an object of history, rather than one who helped make and shape history. So, I took as my email motto a phrase I had picked up in Mississippi: ‘Keep on keepin’ on.’ I’ve forgotten the song it came with, but never the message. It has served me well.
Author’s Bio: Carl Davidson was the National Secretary of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from 1966 to 1968. He became a writer for the Guardian newspaper. Carl was also a leader in the October League and League for Revolutionary Struggle. He is a leader in the Committee for Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and founder of the Online University of the Left. He lives in Beaver County, PA where he grew up.