Revolutionaries are moved, as Che Guevara famously pointed out, by great feelings of love for the people. But for many of us, the first impulse toward activism, and then the idea of socialist revolution, was something quite other—anger, even rage, at exploitation, oppression, racism, injustice, plunder, hypocrisy. And life in late capitalist society here in the belly of the beast, as José Martí named it, every single day produces reasons to experience that anger afresh.
But anger can be damaging, to us as individuals, to our loved ones and comrades and to the masses among whom we live and work. How then should we think about it and try to handle it? Here are some useful thoughts from the late and legendary Myles Horton, who in 1932 founded and led the remarkable Highlander Folk School in the mountains of Tennessee. Highlander (and Horton) went on to play a critical role in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, acting as what Aldon D. Morris calls a “movement halfway house.”
Myles Horton grew up at a time when most people outside of cities heated with wood fires, but his metaphor here is easy to follow. This is excerpted from his 1990 autobiography (co-written with Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl), The Long Haul. It’s full of history and a lifetime’s accumulation of wisdom hard-earned in the struggle.
I had to turn my anger into a slow burning fire, instead of a consuming fire. You don’t want the fire to go out—you never let it go out—and if it ever gets weak, you stoke it, but you don’t want it to burn you up. It keeps you going, but you subdue it, because you don’t want to be destroyed by it.
When I talk about a slow burning fire, I mean a fire that is banked for the moment. All the fire it ever had is still there. I can uncover a little bit at a time, and if it flames up too high, I can throw more ashes on it so it won’t come up and burn me, and everybody around me. But I don’t want to put it out, I want it to stay there. It’s there, it could flare up, and there may be times when it should flare up. What you need is a good backlog going all the time.
In slavery days, in some places, the slave owners would say to the slaves, “You can have a Christmas as long as the backlog burns.” If you have a big fireplace, you keep a huge log in the back that throws out the heat. Everything is built in front of it so that the heat can come out. The backlog is there, it slowly burns, it gets very hot and it makes better coals. You put a little wood in front of it, but it stays there and gives out heat.
You take ashes and bank it at night, and in the morning when you get up, the log is still red-hot. Then you take the ashes away and all you have to do is throw in some more wood. Now, the slaves would take a big log and haul it into the swamps and sink it. It’d be there all year soaking up water. At Christmastime they’d take an ox and pull that log out of the swamp and into the big fireplace as a backlog. It would last for two weeks because it was soaked in water. As long as that backlog was burning, they got a vacation.
The important lesson is that you’ve got to keep that anger inside you smoldering. You don’t want to let it die out. Any time you want to build on it, to use it, you can make it burn very fast. Where that fire’s smoldering, that fire’s always there, always subject to revving up and getting going, but you’re thinking in long terms now, you’re not thinking in the short terms.
I had to come to grips with this when I realized that the capitalist system was more viable than I had thought. It had more ways of lasting than I had understood from my experiences in the Depression, when a lot of people, including me, thought that capitalism was on its last legs. When I finally found out it wasn’t even limping, that Roosevelt’s job was to make it work, and he did make it work, I realized that you had to slow down the fire, because you’d burn up the fuel and it would be over. That’s when I started trying to calm myself down, and grasped that the revolution had to be built step by step, that it wasn’t going to come as a great explosion automatically. It had to be made, or it wouldn’t happen.
That’s when I started saying, “Horton, get yourself together, get ready for the long haul and try to determine how you can live out this thing and make your life useful.”Download this piece as a PDF