Reviewed: Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, by Diana Block. Published by AK Press, 2009.
"We had gone underground in the early eighties, not a high-tide period for revolutionary activity in the US. Unlike the people who had formed the Weather Underground Organization in the sixties, we were not swept into clandestinity as a response to the Vietnam War or the militancy of the Black Panthers As we saw it, armed struggle was still a necessary component of every revolutionary movement, and the movement within the US was no exception." – Diana Block
How do we decide where to put our political energy? For many of us on the left our politicization began with critiques of the dominant ideology. Our critiques may have been a result of formal education, though for many our critiques were lifeboats we clung to keep from drowning in the chasm between what we were told and what we experienced. Upon confronting contradictions we look for explanations. We attempt to deconstruct the world and then reconstruct it to make sense of it and find our place in it. We make our underlying ideologies conscious. We develop our analysis and principles and then attempt to act in a way that is aligned with their logical conclusions.
As leftist revolutionaries we ask ourselves the same questions at different times in our history. What is to be done? What does revolutionary work look like in our time and what is my role within it?
Diana Block’s memoir, Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, is an example of a leftist making sense of the world around her, attempting to act with integrity, and searching for political strategy and home. The memoir moves easily back and forth between two aspects of her story. The book begins with Block’s partner, Claude Marks, finding a bug in their car in 1985 after several years of organizing and living clandestinely, and only two months after she gave birth to their first child. This main narrative details her life underground and her re-emergence and re-engagement with organizing from 1995 to the present. It is interspersed with the back story of Block’s experiences, politics, and the context that led to her decision to form a clandestine revolutionary collective to support Third World anti-colonialist armed struggles. Block’s book is her answer to the question of what it means to be a revolutionary in one’s own time. In particular, Block analyzes her role as a white person in the US with feminist, lesbian/queer, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist politics.
I do not feel compelled to use this book, or this review, as a site to evaluate the usefulness of clandestine work, or the question of armed struggle. Due in part to the fact that Block does not provide us with enough information about the years of clandestine work to fully evaluate or understand those actions, but mainly because the debates that Diana engaged in around the question of armed struggle are not those that are currently relevant on the ground in social movements or at large in in broader left intentional spaces today. However, understanding the climate in which these decisions came about, the fissures, fractures, and traumas of past movements, and the personal roads traveled by our revolutionaries, help us to understand our current conditions. It assists us to recognize the roots of our ideas about what is possible, and the state of our left institutions and movements. For myself, at age 31 and with more than a decade of movement involvement, and for my leftist identified activist peers, the most interesting aspects of ATS are the ways in which Block articulates the internal and external factors that influenced her political trajectory, in her particular circumstances and time. For this purpose I will ground this review in looking at Blocks political circumstances, choices, and their consequences through the lens of her memories and analysis.
In prose as engaging as a good novel Block depicts her childhood, her politicization, her coming out, her search for the right political program, her experiences with partnering and parenting, and the day to day details of life underground. At the same time the book offers a wealth of history lessons. Her experiences attempting to do radical political work and then being underground in the US eras of Reagan and Bush, and of solidarity organizing with what seemed a radical anti-colonialist peoples’ movement in Zimbabwe (and then experiencing the profound disappointments of that movement), and with the Puerto Rican Independence movement, have not been described in other memoirs of revolutionaries from that era, such as those by Bill Ayers, or Mark Rudd, or Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz. In particular, Arm the Spirit is a great start for learning some of the history and continued struggles around Puerto Rican anti-colonial movement in the US.
How did Block and her collective get to the decision to organize clandestinely in support of the Puerto Rican independence movement? According to her memoir, mostly through frustration. Frustration with a lack of radicalism, holistic approaches, and strategic programs within various aspects of left movements and the rollbacks of even the most reformist social justice programs.
"Most of the white left had distanced themselves from the efforts of Blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Chicanos to develop clandestine organizations and activity, denouncing these endeavors as "ultra-left" and out of touch with the social reality of the masses of Americans. We argued that a social reality dominated by electoral politics, unions tied to the Democratic Party, white supremacy, debilitating cynicism, and an increasing right wing backlash had to be contested on many different levels in order for any significant political breakthrough to occur…"
Block describes how she moved from group to group following her political ideals. Arm the Spirit could be read as a series of disappointments. As she tells it, Block was critical of the anti war student movement for its patriarchal sexism, so didn’t get involved while in school. Living in NY, in 1968, she attempted to teach in a Harlem program that was a response to the civil rights movement, but was disappointed by the white supremacy within the teachers union, and the limits of relying on institutionalized reforms.
She then became active in the radical anti-rape movement in NY and then SF, helping to found San Francisco Woman Against Rape (SF WAR) in 1972. Block became disappointed with the lack of connection and commitment to larger leftist organization, the debates about serving victims by building alliances with the criminal injustice system and state law enforcement, and the unchallenged white supremacy in the anti-rape and woman’s liberation movement. As Block was becoming disenchanted with SF WAR, she was exposed to the Weather Underground’s book Prairie Fire (1974) as it emerged from the underground. In it, she found the anti-imperialist critique, clear arguments for white revolutionaries to support anti-colonialist armed struggle within and outside of the US, and the specific instruction for action that she was looking for. Her excitement about the text was augmented by witnessing the strong leadership of lesbian feminists, like Laura Whitehorn, in the East Coast Prairie Fire Organizing Committee.
Block joined the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and became involved in, and inspired by, more directly building relationships and working in solidarity with third world revolutionary groups. After doing this work above ground for some time Block and her collective threw all of their efforts towards supporting the Puerto Rican Independence movement.
"The debates (over armed struggle) went on for years and in the end we had to put our theoretical commitments to the test. We owed it to the third world forces we worked with and to our own political integrity. And so, as Ronald Reagan embarked on his effort to consolidate counter-revolution worldwide, we went underground."
Supporting the Independentistas’ movement for self-determination of a colony of the US was an obvious fit with her anti-racist and anti-imperialist principles and beliefs about the roles of white revolutionaries. Yet even after making the decision to do clandestine solidarity work there were sacrifices to Block’s desire for strategic political work. Block recalls her remorse that their clandestine acts were not done in connection to a larger left movement as they had hoped.
Like many on the far left who ended up underground for fear of prosecution, their political isolation dramatically intensified after they found evidence of surveillance. During this time Block and some of her comrades tried to find low profile ways to engage in political work. For Block and several of the other women in the collective this mostly took the form of doing local based work with women in the AIDS movement and being involved with other parents in their communities. Though they attempted to continue to live their principles and transmit them to their children while underground, they were unable to be explicit about their politics and were cut off from the political communities that they had left.
When she resurfaces in the mid 1990s, however, she reports that much of the political landscape has changed.
"There were dozens of political groups-anti-racist, feminist, queer, environmentalist, globalist. Yet as I began to investigate their programs and activities, it seemed each one operated separately from the others, pursuing projects and goals that I supported, but without the breadth of vision of ideological orientation that was necessary to build a more unified political movement. In fact the burgeoning non-profit industrial complex seemed, in many ways, to have taken over the spirit and structure of the left."
As a reader it was profound to recognize that her observation upon surfacing largely echoes her thinking about her political work in the mid-70s. In the 70s she was involved in various campaigns and commitments, including building SF WAR, working on immigrant education and education local reform issues, and collective studies of Marxism-Leninism. But this work lacked cohesion. "This was the question that preoccupied me. All various pieces of work that I was doing were good, up to a point. But there was no over arching vision to fit them all together, no set of principles and no organizational framework." I wonder after reading Block’s memoir, how much did the conditions change and how much of it just followed the trajectory that was beginning in those early SFWAR debates? How could radical voices like Block’s have influenced the direction of these organizations which had been born out of popular struggle as so many colluded with the state to become a-political service centered nonprofits?
In Block’s reflections from a SFWAR reunion that she attends in 2003, she realizes that she had been oblivious to the women from her initial group of founding members who committed themselves to working with SFWAR. She had been so frustrated with the political choices and debates within the group that she hadn’t even been aware that they had made the choice to stick around and commit to the group. SFWAR, she writes, has resisted becoming co-opted by the system and has struggled to maintain its anti-racist analysis both within its own distribution of power within the organization and in its programmatic work. Block credits this to her and other of the founding members initial values, but this history would not have been enough if none of those members had committed to domestic violence work and to the organization.
The question of where to focus political work is one so many struggle to answer. I have heard many anti-racist, anti-imperialist activists of the younger generations who study revolutionary histories bemoan that they do not perceive themselves to have obvious anti-imperialist, people of color led movements to join or work in solidarity with. Others relocate to countries in the Global South to do just that. Others move from group to group working on single issue campaigns, working for non-profits or in cafes, taking part in political study groups and anti-oppression workshops, creating community gardens, co-ops and other and new or alternative institutions, creating queer social spaces with chosen families, etc and still lament the lack of overarching left strategy, and diverse inclusive political community. I am not encouraging one over the other, but noting how these diverse options illustrate the ways this lack of shared strategy plays out in a contemporary landscape.
Arm the Spirit is in part the story of an activist’s search for political home. This is a search that so many of us embark on. The questions continue: Where am I most useful? Where am I fully my self? What should I commit to? When is a group worth trying to transform and when should I move on to the next group more in line with my principles? Many of us want to commit, but we still find our selves engaging in something, being disappointed, and moving on to find a better fit–all the while critiquing and defending our own and each others choices. How do we link our various left work to a larger struggle? How do we have a strong unified left capable of socialist revolution? Block’s story, however compelling and insightful, cannot provide us with a solution as to where to work. She is still active, and still engaging with these same questions today. In her words:
"Superficially my life had begun to assume the same normalized contours as those of my friends. Our relative privilege and the support we received had allowed me to resume a viable life…But inside I was driven by constant self-interrogation. What should I be doing politically at this time? What would be the most effective choices, given who I was? Was there any way to apply everything that I felt I had learned from our history that didn’t sound like a didactic lesson from an anachronistic past?"
Block continues to be a principled activist working mainly with political prisoners, and California Coalition For Women Prisoners, and with this book acts as a historical resource for the next generations. Her collective’s solidarity work with the Puerto Rican independence movement’s militant challenge to US imperialism, their support for political prisoners and grand jury resisters, and protest of the violence of colonialism against independence activists was and is needed and important. The importance of their solidarity work was reaffirmed to Block by the Puerto Rican community’s fierce support and loving embrace of her collective when they resurfaced in 1995. Our work on the left is on many fronts, but though the questions that Block tried to respond to still remain, revolutionaries today can benefit from her acknowledgment of the destructive processes that surrounded determinations of strategy in the late 70s.
At a point early in the book Block talks about the years of polarizing debates on the left that locked them into dichotomous positioning. She reflects that if the arguments weren’t so polarizing, and if they weren’t so headstrong, they could have admitted and explored their own doubts and concerns about how to strategically support anti-imperialist struggle. They could have discussed questions about their clandestine formation and its "sustainability at that point in history" and "which type of activities were feasible at that stage of struggle." It’s possible that it wouldn’t have changed their choice, but it might have changed their preparation, their way of going about it, and their connection to broader, public movements. Maybe there could have been a way to make it more connected and more sustainable if only they had the space to deeply discuss it? One of the most important lessons to take is the necessity for multi-tendency discussions about left strategy that are not polarizing.
Recent convergences in the US such as the Left Forum, the US Social Forums, cross organizational attempts at "strategic dialogues," and the abundance of movement people involved in multi-tendency political theory study groups gives reason to hope that many revolutionaries today recognize it as our task to have unifying discussions about revolutionary strategy. While some from Block’s generation still seem to be hashing out the same debates with the ghosts of movements’ past, I believe that there are more possibilities for productive dialogue for this generation of activists who have some emotional distance from the past, a willingness to study, access to contemporary and historic sources of information, and an analysis rooted more strongly by anti-racism, feminism, and queer liberation.
As the last chapter of the book is titled: A Luta Continua! Block concludes her book with a quote from political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim, former member of the Black Panther Party*. Jalil was a founder of Arm the Spirit, the prisoner-written and produced newspaper of the late 1970s-early 80s, in which Block and many others who were incarcerated and outside found a source of education and inspiration. In response to the question of what the phrase "arm the spirit" means to him today Jalil responded "The call to arm the spirit is for revolutionaries to comprehend their capacity to love, to give themselves to humanity, to know one’s purpose in the course of building and sustaining the revolutionary struggle." May it be so.
*For more information about the campaign to support political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim visit http://www.freejalil.com/
Dana Barnett is a leftist activist, organizer, mediator, trainer, and legal aide paralegal in Philadelphia, PA.