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A Legacy of Struggle: The Importance of Knowledge

The importance of a knowledge of history to understanding the present and to develop an appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments of those progressive people who preceded us.
In several of the articles I have posted on indymedia, I provided a great deal of historical information in support of the points I was making. A person commented that I should concentrate on current events, rather than dwell on the past. To this I would reply that I think a good knowledge of the past is essential to adequately understand the present and possibly to grasp what economic and political forces are in operation so inferences can be made about future developments. It is not enough for us as anarchists and socialists to be simply against the authority of the state and rebellious in nature. Besides idealism and rebellion, knowledge is crucially important to our success.

Another reason for studying history is to pay our respects to the sacrifices and struggles of those progressives who preceded us and contributed so much to the political and economic rights we enjoy today. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their struggle against great odds at very bleak periods of human history and we should develop an appreciation of that fact.

I was not born a Marxist. My knowledge grew gradually from reading about the plight of poor people in England from the novels of Charles Dickens and the oppression and injustices they suffered in France as depicted in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The conditions of the workers in the meatpacking plants in Chicago I learned from reading a book called The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The analysis of human nature in Dostoevsky's books fascinated me as did the beautiful, poetic thoughts in Shakespeare's plays. I developed an antagonism toward injustice and exploitation in the world long before I read the Communist Manifesto. The point I am making is that great literature, as well as history and philosophy, can have a profound influence on how one views the world. A good library can teach one far more than the television set or even a computer.

The history of the 19th and 20th centuries has been a history of revolutions by the working classes against colonial rule and oppression by the ruling classes. From the French revolution of 1789 to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Europe was in a constant state of turmoil. The Greeks revolted against Turkish rule in 1821. The Poles revolted against the Russians in 1830 and 1863. There were a whole series of socialist revolutions in major European cities in 1848. Italy gained independence from Austrian rule in the wars of 1859 and 1866. Then, of course, there was the striking example of the Paris Commune in 1871. While Europe was occupied with war and revolution, Simon Bolivar and Jose San Martin liberated South America from Spanish domination.

Russian populist movements like Land and Liberty and the People's Will tried to educate the peasants and employed terrorism against the Czar's officials. Vera Zasulich gained fame for shooting the brutal Governor General of St. Petersburg, Trepov, who had previously had a populist prisoner called Bogolyubov flogged to death for failing to doff his cap to him on a prison inspection. Several attempts were made to blow up the Czar's train and a portion of the Winter Palace was blown apart by Stephan Khalturin with smuggled dynamite. Czar Alexander II escaped these assassination attempts. Finally, a number of conspirators managed to assassinate Czar Alexander II in 1881 by bombing his carriage. These Russian revolutionaries were extremely dedicated and courageous. They were often hung or sentenced to long prison terms in Siberia. Many were nobles who gave up a life of luxury to become revolutionaries. At that time even distributing leaflets or criticizing the Czar were punishable by long years of hard labor in Siberia.

We face no such harsh obstacles today. The Patriot Act is very restrictive, but one does not get sent to Guantanamo Bay yet for distributing leaflets or criticizing the President. Therefore, we really have no excuse for not trying our best to educate the American people. I was once despairing of the dedication and courage or America's young people, but the Battle of Seattle and the bravery I observed there changed my viewpoint.

Another remarkable feature about the Russian and other European revolutionaries was how well educated they were. They not only read Karl Marx, but all sorts of other philosophers as well like Hegel, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kant, Feuerbach, Rousseau, Voltaire and some that in my ignorance of philosophy I didn't even recognize. The thought occurred to me that despite living in the so-called information age, perhaps these 19th century revolutionaries were even more knowledgeable than we are today. After all, they weren't exposed to all the trivialities, inanities and the addictive, dumbing-down aspects of television. Television could be a wonderful educational instrument, but not in the hands of the corporations.

Capitalist governments like the one in the United States often lie, fabricate incidents and use other deceptions to induce people to support wars for the enrichment of corporations. It is easy to expose these lies if one has a good knowledge of history because these methods have been used many times in the past.

In summary, the old saying that knowledge is power is really true, and if we expect to convince people that the truth is on our side, we need to study as well as organize.

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