Feinberg receives Thurman Award
'Solidarity in the struggle for social transformation'
Published Oct 31, 2007 4:58 PM
Leslie Feinberg and Rev. Dorsey Blake.
Photo: Courtney Brown
On Oct. 21, Leslie Feinberg, a managing editor of Workers World newspaper,
was keynote speaker at the Annual Convocation of The Church for the Fellowship
of All Peoples in San Francisco, where she was given the Howard Thurman Award
“for hir activism and advocacy in defense of oppressed nationalities,
women, disabled, the working class movement and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender community.” Proclamations congratulating Feinberg were issued
by the California State Legislature and the City and County of San Francisco.
The mayor’s office named Oct. 21 “Leslie Feinberg Day.” Below
is the full text of her speech on finding common ground where communists and
religious activists can be in solidarity in the struggle for social
transformation and liberation.
I thank you, with deep sincerity, for honoring me with this award—which
is a tribute to the work of the great liberation theologian Dr. Howard Thurman,
who tirelessly worked to find common ground.
I can only accept this award with a great sense of humility—which, to
paraphrase Dr. Thurman, is my consciousness of the distance between who I am
and who I strive to be.
I thank the Rev. Dorsey Blake and the Church for the Fellowship of All
Peoples—the first consciously planned interracial congregation in the
United States—for creating common ground here today on which to hold a
strategic discussion. You show great courage in presenting this award to a
revolutionary political activist: I am a secular Jewish communist, a
working-class, lesbian transgender Marxist.
Therefore, this common ground on which we talk to each other today is hallowed
by your bravery, and I don’t use the word lightly.
“When I gave food to the poor they called me a saint,” commented
Brazilian liberation theologian Dom Helder Camara. “When I ask why the
poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Helder Camara articulates that the threat is leveled when people stop working
within a brutally unjust economic and social status quo, and when they
challenge the right of such a system to continue.
Red-baiting is a potent threat—it’s the demand for a loyalty oath
to the emperor, to the slave-owner, to the bankers and industrialists.
Dr. Thurman reminds us that we must each decide where we draw the line beyond
which we will not yield.
It is that line—that point at which red baiting is unsheathed as a weapon
to try to force us to back off from social and economic transformation—at
which we must find common ground. If we discuss this together, with great
respect, we may find that we agree on more than we might think. Our task is not
to build a bridge between ideologies but, together, to pave the road to
This task is particularly timely since the Vatican condemned last week what it
called a Marxist influence in Latin America, which it said threatened the
Just as the Rev. Dorsey and this congregation have shown the courage here in
the citadel of anti-communism to invite a revolutionary to this pulpit, I speak
from this podium with you today without sectarianism and with respect for your
integrity and conviction, about the tasks that history hands us.
The Rev. Thurman wrote, “A fresh sense of history must be developed. All
the events of our world must be placed in a context of incident that reveals
their profound interrelatedness. History on this planet must be regarded not as
individual happenings unrelated to social processes, but, instead, as
overlapping patterns of group behavior brought into play by a wide variety of
creative personal and impersonal forces at work in the world. History is not
irrational,” he concluded, “it has a deep logic and
Thurman exhorted, “Examine the past and behold the unfolding of living
Marxists, too, climb to the mountaintop to study the vista of rolling
development of hundreds of thousands of years of human history: pre-class
communal societies, chattel slavery, feudalism, capitalism. Like you, we do not
assign evil to “original sin” or “hard-wired” human
We see that for the major portion of that long, long history, human beings
worked in group cooperation on every continent, from hunting and gathering
societies to rudimentary agriculture.
The great discovery of Marx was that the motive force of human social
development was the way human beings were organized to produce food, clothing
Science and belief had not yet split in early human communal societies. They
were all one effort to observe and understand the world. Our early ancestors
took part in group ritual and collective prayer for a bountiful crop, for
example, but they did not wait for deities to harvest for them.
In that way our early ancestors were materialists—by which I mean they
were trying to glean rudimentary scientific understanding of the relationships
of humans and nature—not the common usage of the word materialistic to
mean greedy acquisitiveness.
Human nature is not fixed and immutable, but really quite changeable when
material conditions are changing.
To our early ancestors, who would have starved without cooperation and sharing,
the decree “Thou shalt not steal” would have been inexplicable.
But with changing economic organization and exploitation, the Lord’s
Prayer changed too. Only under feudal privatizing—the enclosure of common
land—could trespass be a crime that required absolution. Only under a
money-based capitalism system could debt require mercy.
We note that where human society first cleaved into haves and
have-nots—into slave-owners and slaves, feudal landowners and serfs,
capitalist patriarchs and workers—that religion and science split, as
And from that point on, virtually every emperor or king or imperial president
has flown a religious flag over their class battles to expand their empires.
Those who resist, often do so under the banner of the same religion, or an
Early revolutionary Christianity, for example, kindled the hope of emancipation
for those who were enslaved.
When the Christian hierarchy deified the kings of feudalism—a form of
enslavement of serfs to the land in Europe in the Middle Ages—Thomas
Münzer, a German peasant pastor, led an army of serfs in a popular
uprising against the Holy Roman Empire in 1524.
Ernest Block called Thomas Münzer the first theologian of revolution.
Münzer based his liberation theology on the ancient Christian communal
organization that is documented in early Christian texts.
Harvey G. Cox wrote that Münzer’s cause “failed and he was
executed, but not before injecting into the Western religious mentality the
notion that if those who hold power do not wield it justly, then the oppressed
are the ones who are designated by God to correct the injustice and to
establish the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Cox adds, “If we trace the impulse back to the 17th century, then no
history of radical ideas is complete without an account of the Levellers and
the Diggers, the latter led by Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley believed that
Christianity called for a radically egalitarian society and for complete
communal ownership of land.”
All human thought, including theology, is rooted in a specific historical
relationship of forces. And the hierarchy of Christianity is an institution
that has had a direct relationship to the ruling powers of European colonialism
and imperialism, expanding brutal rule around the globe with the Bible, as well
as the bullet.
In many eras, those who fought to break the shackles based their right to
resist on the Bible, as well.
Denmark Vesey, the great leader of rebellion of enslaved peoples, was an
African Methodist, while Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop, was a Confederate
general in the Civil War. The struggle to abolish slavery split the
denominations on this continent, based on who suffered from slavery and who
profited from slavery.
Of course, it was not moral suasion that ended slavery, but armed uprisings and
Henry David Thoreau eloquently defended the armed raid led by a white religious
man—John Brown—and his group of Black and white guerrilla fighters.
Thoreau, known for his writings on pacifism, spoke to the public in Concord,
Mass., on a Sunday evening, Oct. 30, 1859.
He said in part that Brown’s doctrine was that a person “has a
perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue
the slave. I agree with him. ... I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I
can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me
Thoreau stressed, “I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the
revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of
one who could use them.”
He added, “The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple
once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit
in which you use it. ... What sort of violence is that which is encouraged, not
by soldiers, but by peaceable citizens, not so much by laymen as by ministers
of the Gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so
much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?”
The great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed with succinct power:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, want crops without plowing up the
ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean
without the awful roar of its many waters.”
It may seem strange to talk of armies and war from this pulpit. And yet here I
do not want to assume disagreement where it may not exist. Who here would not
put their own safety aside to defend themselves, their loved ones, their
neighbors and co-workers from enslavement or lynching or rape? It is an act of
Struggles for justice are a collective act of self-defense.
The Emancipation Proclamation, signed on Jan. 1, 1863, formally ended slavery
in this country. It mandated that the U.S. government—and the entire
military—must maintain the freedom of former slaves, and “will do
no acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make
for their actual freedom.”
The proclamation also specifically spelled out the right of African Americans
to self-defense against violence.
But the 1877 Compromise left the largely unarmed former slaves defenseless.
The Northern industrialists betrayed the revolutionary potential of Black
Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. The U.S. government capitulated to
the Southern planters and ex-slaveowners by withdrawing its federal troops.
The Southern landowners armed the Klan as a weapon of terror and murder to
block redistribution of the land to those who had tilled it for centuries.
Ida B. Wells, a courageous anti-lynching crusader, formed armed neighborhood
Overall, however, the Klan got away with murder—until 1957. That year,
freedom fighter Rob Williams organized the first African American armed defense
squads in Monroe, N.C. They protected the home of a Black doctor, then head of
the NAACP, against racists who tried to bomb it.
The Ku Klux Klan had a strong centralized base in Monroe. Yet while these armed
defense guards prevailed there, no Black person was flogged or lynched.
Deacons for Defense and Justice formed around 1964 in Jonesboro, La. The armed
Black self-defense squads organized after cordons of cops escorted a Klan march
through an African-American neighborhood.
When the Black community forged armed self-defense squads, the racist reign of
terror abated. By 1965, there were 62 chapters of Deacons for Defense spread
throughout the South and a chapter coalesced in Chicago.
Many of the African-American men involved in Deacons for Defense had been
trained in military tactics during the Pentagon war against Korea. When these
soldiers returned to the U.S., they were ready to do battle to defend their
communities against the war on Black America.
Once the defense guards disbanded, Klan terror revived.
Rob Williams was later forced to flee to Cuba to escape phony charges resulting
from the struggles in Monroe.
Cuba itself has been like a maroon community of former enslaved
peoples—60 percent of whom are of African descent. Since the Cuban
Revolution sent the mine-owners and landowners and bankers and industrialists
and crime bosses packing, Wall Street and Washington have used the Pentagon to
enforce a blockade of the island to literally starve the Cuban population.
The U.S. has ordered invasions, assassination attempts, spying, subterfuge,
sabotage—all to try to crush the revolution and re-enslave Cuba.
Five heroic Cuban men are in U.S. jails today as political prisoners serving
long sentences because they infiltrated CIA-commando contra armies operating on
U.S. soil that are plotting and carrying out right-wing terrorist attacks
These political prisoners—the Cuban Five—deserve our support.
The Cuban Revolution could not have withstood U.S. attack without organizing
and arming the population for collective defense of the island nation.
As a result of defending this liberated turf, this common ground, the Cuban
Revolution has been able to accomplish what the richest capitalist countries in
the world will not do and cannot do:
The revolution guarantees free health care for all, free education for all,
jobs for all and affordable housing.
This is in spite of the almost $90 billion Cuba has lost due to the blockade,
an illegal act of war. Today the U.S. is tightening the noose of this blockade.
Let us raise our voices as one to demand an end to the U.S. blockade of
Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto interviewed Cuban revolutionary
leader Fidel Castro at length about Marxism and liberation theology.
Fidel, who was raised Catholic, said about references to Jesus of Nazareth
multiplying the fish and loaves to feed the people:
“That is precisely what we want to do with the revolution and socialism:
multiply the fish and the loaves to feed the people; multiply the schools,
teachers, hospitals and doctors; multiply the factories, the fields under
cultivation and the jobs; multiply industrial and agricultural productivity;
and multiply the research centers and the number of scientific research
projects for the same purpose.”
Fidel noted the parable of the man who paid some farm workers one denarius for
a full day’s work; to others one denarius for half a day’s work;
and yet others one denarius for half an afternoon’s work.
Fidel said, “The parable implies a criticism of those who didn’t
agree with that distribution. I believe that it is precisely a communist
formula; it goes beyond what we say in socialism, because in socialism each
should be paid according to [their] capacity and work, while the communist
formula is to give to each according to [their] needs.”
Fidel added that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount in
which Jesus reportedly said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for
righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Fidel said it is obvious that—no matter how you interpret the meaning of
the words “eye of a needle”—”Jesus didn’t offer
the kingdom of heaven to the rich; he really offered it to the poor.”
Frei Betto asked the Cuban leader about two concepts that he said cause some
Christians some difficulty: the concept of class hatred and the concept of
Fidel answered, “Marxism-Leninism doesn’t cause or preach class
hatred; it simply says that classes and class struggle exist and that struggles
give rise to hatred. It isn’t a call to hatred; rather, it is an
explanation of the hatred that exists when people become aware that they are
being exploited. ... What really causes hatred,” he said, is “human
exploitation, oppression, marginalization and social injustice.”
“That is what the criteria and principles of class struggle
mean—and also what ‘class hatred’ means: not the hatred of
people but the hatred of a class system, which isn’t the same
Fidel explained, “I don’t think that denouncing and fighting
against crime, injustice, exploitation, abuses and inequalities among people
goes against Christian teachings or is in contradiction with religion. Fighting
for rights wouldn’t be against religion either.”
“Logically,” he concluded, “a religious position or theory
that seeks out the best in the history contradicts the interests of
Today, in the words of Howard Thurman: “The quest for freedom looms
larger and larger” on our horizon.
Dr. Thurman reminds us: “It is not enough merely to be sincere, to be
conscientious. This is not to underestimate the profound necessity for
sincerity in human relations, but it is to point out the fact that sincerity is
no substitute for intelligent understanding.
“The will to understand requires an authentic sense of fact with
reference to as many areas of human life as possible. This means that we must
use the raw materials of accurate knowledge of others to give strength and
direction to the will to understand.”
His words advise us to go outside our own experiences, to learn about what
others are experiencing, in order to raise our consciousness.
This is the ground on which solidarity can be built. Without solidarity, there
can be no class unity. True solidarity has always been based not on demanding
that you support my struggle, but my willingness to defend yours.
Today, we are being asked to line up behind Halliburton and Big Oil, Wall
Street and its banks, to go kill or be killed in a war for empire in the Middle
East. This so-called “war on terror” carries the banner of
Christian fundamentalism in a war against Muslims who are resisting
enslavement, who are defending their land, their labor, their lives.
As a Jewish revolutionary, I say here that I am shoulder-to-shoulder with
Muslims who are fighting for their sovereignty and self-determination all over
Surely we can unite against Pentagon wars for profit, from the Middle East to
Africa, from its covert dirty wars against Cuba to its intended new war against
For those who ask, how could Japanese Americans have been rounded up and
interned in California and Arizona during World War II, today Muslim, Arab and
South Asian neighbors, co-workers and friends are being discriminated against,
disappeared, detained, deported and tortured.
And our undocumented immigrant sisters and brothers are being rounded up in
Gestapo-like raids, families torn asunder, forced deportations.
Surely we can raise our voices as one to say, as we said in the 1960s:
“There are no borders in the workers’ struggle.”
Surely we can unite against racism and sexism, against homophobia and
transphobia, for jobs, education, health care and housing.
As communists, we will be side by side with you in struggles for
justice—from Bayview Hunters Point to freedom for the SF 8, from Katrina
But we as communists won’t rest until every battle’s won. As
revolutionaries we struggle as modern-day Abolitionists.
We will not render unto Caesar what has never been his—
Either the right to enforce a realm of wage slavery by brutal rule, or the
right to claim ownership of the wealth and apparatus of production that have
been built through the millennia by the muscle and sweat and blood of the
Today the material conditions, knowledge and techniques are all ripe enough to
produce an abundance of food for everyone on the planet.
Why so much hunger? Because we have not yet collectively torn up the deed that
says the land and everything produced on it is privately owned and can only be
distributed for lucrative profit.
It is us—the vast class of working and oppressed peoples around the
planet who are doing the work of the world everyday, but are never asked how it
should be run.
We are the class that can liberate the apparatus of production, tear up the
secular deed of private ownership and multiply the loaves and fishes until
there is no hunger.
Until there is no need to steal in the face of abundance.
Until the last shall be first.
Until those who have been naught shall be all.
Until defense of that liberated common ground is no longer required.
Will we live to see a society in which people contribute their work according
to their abilities and receive according to their needs?
It matters not.
When Dr. Thurman asked an 81-year-old farmer why he didn’t plant more
mature trees that could bear fruit in his lifetime, the old man answered:
“All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant, why
should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after
I am gone.”
Besides the man said, “Anyone who plants because they will reap the
harvest has no faith in life.”
There is a great centeredness and joy and freedom to be found in doing what is
historically necessary, in taking up the tasks that history hands us.
We cannot wait to build a new human being before striving to build a new
Our role in the liberation struggle develops our consciousness, our conviction
and integrity, and the new world itself creates a new human being, a new human
We as communists love life—our own, our loved ones and our class.
We would prefer that such a world could be won through moral suasion.
But history proves this is a dangerous illusion to embrace.
Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara summed it up this way, “At the risk of
seeming ridiculous, a revolutionary is guided by great feelings of
It is a love that cannot turn its back on those who are discriminated against
and downtrodden and disenfranchised.
It is the love felt by people who are willing to risk their lives for changes
that generations yet unborn will cherish.
Let us continue to find our common ground on the road we pave to
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