Learning from History

EDITORIAL, 27 Jun 2022

#751 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

In 1973 I was working in Chile with a team doing community organizing in the form of educación popular. Inspired by the philosophy of Paulo Freire, it is not much of an exaggeration to say we were fanatics about avoiding at all costs doing what Freire called “banking education” (putting ideas into the heads of our teacher/learners as if we were depositing money into an empty bank account).  For at least a year the teacher/learners had to come to voice; they had to find the courage to speak their words; they had to feel that what they already knew was important; that they were important.  Only when we were sure they felt they were our equals, if not our betters, could we introduce “contents” by teaching them things we knew that they did not know.

We knew perfectly well that a military coup was coming.  We also knew, although somehow we contrived not to be aware that we knew, that the contemporary situation in Chile as our students imagined it bore no resemblance to the harsh realities of power and hatred.

But framing the issue in this way begs the most important question.  Suppose we gave our students the benefit of our superior knowledge, instead of keeping our superior knowledge to ourselves while assiduously cultivating the growth of their self-confidence?  What did we know?  We knew that the Chilean armed forces, backed by the American CIA, were about to terminate democracy.  But why was that happening?

This latter question calls for dialogues with advocates of system change who believe have answers to such questions.  I had attended Salvador Allende’s last May Day speech, on May 1, 1973, at Plaza Bulnes in front of the presidential palace.  When Allende began to speak, a large block of young militants standing near me did an about-face and turned their backs on him, in order to dramatize their disagreement with what he was going to say.  They were all carrying long sticks, as if sticks were weapons.  I had learned about the “lefter than thou” syndrome from Bogdan Denitch in meetings of the Bay Area Young People´s Socialist League when I was a law student at Stanford.  This appeared to be a manifestation of its Chilean version.  It was supported by heavyweight intellectuals who had flown in from Europe to visit Allende in his office and give him advice.

Their advice was that Allende should continue the practice of having the police ignore court orders to dislodge workers who all over Chile were spontaneously taking over businesses, industries and farms (including a small jam factory near my house in the country) with no process of law.  Parts of Allende´s coalition including the Communist Party were against it, advocating sticking to the platform Allende had run on as a candidate.   The heavyweight intellectuals advised Allende that the Communists were conservatives, that the deceptive niceties of democratic politics were destined to come to an end, that the underlying naked truth of class struggle would stand revealed, and that the forces that could most be relied on to support the revolution were the workers and peasants whose spontaneous seizures of the means of production must, therefore, be supported.

The young men who turned their backs to Allende as he began to speak, knew that in his speech Allende was going to include a plea with his supporters to cool it and to act in a more orderly fashion.  The young men with sticks agreed with the heavyweight intellectuals from Europe, not with Allende´s reservations about what he was contre coeur allowing to happen.

Outside the window of my room in a pensión on Moneda Street in Santiago during the evening and night of September 10, 1973, I could see and hear what seemed to be an endless march of workers shouting their support for the doomed government.  Quite apart from the policy disputes within the governmental coalition, I realized that those of us who were working in educación popular and the like had achieved our aims.   The oppressed classes of Chile were concientizados.  They were organized.  They were active.  They were demanding their rights.

The bloodbath began at 5 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 1973.  During the day the workers who had taken over a jam factory near my house were attacked from the air by helicopter gunships.

I had had a relevantly similar experience a decade earlier when I was a young volunteer attorney supporting the efforts of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize California´s farm workers.  When the union at last succeeded in organizing the workers who harvested the tomatoes in California´s largest tomato growing region (later, when I was already in Chile), the growers moved tomato production to Mexico.

Still later, I learned from reading the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, that when what Wallerstein named the European World System was first organized –key dates were January 30 and October 24, 1648, when the Spanish-Dutch treaty and later the multi-party treaty of Westphalia were signed—the European World System was already an international trading system that would later expand to become what Wallerstein named the Modern World System.  The first modern state, Holland, was already a component part of a nascent global economy; it was an entrepôt through which precious metals from the New World passed from Spain to northern Europe.  Spanish and Portuguese exports were traded for goods from northern Europe according to internationally accepted neo-Roman legal precepts.  A little over three centuries later, when the growers moved production to Mexico to avoid paying American wages, the European World System had already become, and had been for more than a century, the Modern World-System.

The lives of the ladies and men harvesting tomatoes by hand in the hot sun day after day, who knew they were underpaid and overworked, were impacted by larger forces and longer histories of which they knew nothing.  So were the lives of our teacher/learners in Chile in 1973.

It thus turned out that my own experiences in the twentieth and later in the twenty-first century, would take place in a global economy.  As Wallerstein put it, the social sciences today have only one object of study: the modern world-system.  Anything else they might study is inside it and part of it.

A consequence of history as it had happened would be that whatever the labour laws of California might be, their causal powers would tend to be trumped by stronger causal powers.   When the farm workers union had, at last, organized the tomato harvest, the state legislature had recently, largely due to the union and its allies, enacted legislation establishing a minimum wage for agricultural workers and supporting their right to organize. But as it turned out, state law did not matter much.

As it turned out, federal law did not matter much either. I personally had pressed Senator, later President, Kennedy when he visited Stanford, to push for extending the federal minimum wage law to cover farm workers.  Kennedy had replied that politics was the art of the possible.  I took this to mean that in the rough and tumble of democratic politics, you have to be in a position to deliver votes and campaign contributions and media attention if you want to get the attention of the legislators who write the laws.  He concluded his answer to me saying “Light a fire under me and I will move on it.”    That was in 1960.  During the early 1960s, many of us, in the USA and around the world, were lighting fires under legislators; sometimes successfully.  On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy, one of the lawmakers who paid some attention to us, was mysteriously assassinated.  Two of the most famous among the thousands around the world who were trying to reform the system by passing better laws and were also assassinated were Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

But none of this made any difference for the ladies and men who had for a brief period earned a union wage harvesting tomatoes in California.

Meanwhile, the situation was even worse for my friend Alicia Cabezudo.   She was secretly teaching clandestine classes in human rights underground during the latest in Argentina´s long series of military dictatorships.  The Argentines did not have any legislators to light fires under.  First, Argentina had to restore democratic government.   Only then would they have a chance to participate in the rough and tumble of democratic politics, and, hopefully, take some baby steps toward the long awaited but never arriving liberté, egalité, fraternité.

After the last of the dictatorships finally fell, in 1983, the constitutionally elected president, Raul Alfonsin, found out through UNESCO that Alicia had been teaching human rights underground.  He called on her to join a team designing a massive educational campaign to teach democratic values to the Argentine people.  I learned something about Argentina because she invited me, Magnus Haavelsrud, and some other foreigners to facilitate learning democratic values among police officers and cadets in training to become police officers.

It was widely expected that President Alfonsin, in addition to promoting an educational system that would teach democracy, citizenship, and the social rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would also implement social policies that would at least raise wages enough to bring them back up to their 1975 levels.   His policies were expected to lead to shared prosperity.  It surprised some people, but it did not surprise me, that this did not happen.   Alfonsin found himself constrained by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, international investors, and generally by contemporary economic reality.

I was not surprised because I had already learned from my California experience that whatever national laws may be, the law of the Modern World-System is that investors choose which nation´s laws they will obey when they chose where to site their operations.  Given today´s rules of the economic game, Argentina needed them more than they needed Argentina.   I had learned from my Chilean experience that some of the best known and most intellectually sophisticated pro-change critical theories can encourage attempts to change contemporary economic reality that fail in practice.


Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. howardri@earlham.edu

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Jun 2022.

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One Response to “Learning from History”

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