Review: Letters from Young Activists

Published in WIN Magazine, formerly The Nonviolent Activist, Summer 2006, Volume 23, No. 3)

by Max Elbaum

The Future Is Now

“You’d better listen up. And quick,” write Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin and Kenyon Farrow in their editors introduction to Letters from Young Activists.

Many readers – especially us past or long past 40 – will be tempted to write off this challenge as mere bravado. We’d be better served to take it to heart and plunge into the pages that follow.

From the opening section – Letters to the Previous Generations – through Letters to the Movements and to the Next Generations, fifty different voices speak their passionate piece. Some in part address coming-of-age issues particular to younger activists. But most tackle issues that face radicals of all ages from their unique generational vantage point.

There are penetrating indictments of oppression and vivid stories of individual experience. Unhealthy dynamics within social movements get a lot of attention. The sub-section Letters on Identity contains only a handful of the letters which tackle this theme, which is clearly on the mind of almost every contributor. Dilemmas of generational continuity and discontinuity, questions about how to learn political lessons and pass them on, loom large.

Tones range from indignation to mourning. Letters with a tight focus and rigorous argument co-exist with meandering tales that convey a mood or, occasionally, lose their way. There are rough spots: a few too many predictable passages and trite formulas. But these are overshadowed by fresh insights and vivid story-telling. The open, self-revealing character of many letters is especially striking. Several absolutely make readers feel that we are listening in to a raw conversation, with no experience too painful to share and no idea too heretical to consider.


Different readers will be most affected by different letters. Here are five that especially provoked me to think in a new way or travel to new emotional territory:

“Dearest Hip Hop,” in which Walidah Imarisha and Not4Prophet poetically lay out their reaction to changes in their mad-loved “rebel without a pause.”

“Dear Punk Rock Activism” by Andy Cornell: this letter offers a model for combining appreciation with critical and self-critical reflection.

“Dear Movement” from Kat Aaron: this writer allows us to listen in on her intimate wrestling match with “hope and frustration” and her challenge to prevailing orthodoxies in the anti-authoritarian/anti-hierarchical political community.

Ashley Lucas’ letter from Hamlin, Texas, which links personal/childhood experience and a broad analytic framework on prisons/incarceration with a rare skill that does justice to both.

“To my future self, fifty years from now, aged 73”: Michelle Kuo takes us on a journey from the small town of Helena, Arkansas to true philosophical depths – a blockbuster of wisdom.


The range of letter-writers in terms of race, nationality, gender and sexuality is impressive. Diversity from other angles is more limited. Cultural workers, activists in the non-profit sector and in academia are over-represented; the large contingent of young organizers in the trade union, environmental, and environmental justice movements are under-represented. Anarchist and anti-authoritarian voices abound, but only one writer is identified as a member of a socialist group and no one writes as a Green. There is a striking absence of letters from young organizers who have thrown themselves into electoral battles, whether through such dynamic formations as the League of Pissed-Off (Young) Voters (not even listed in the book’s resource section); the exciting Black-Latino electoral alliances that have taken shape in important localities; third party efforts, or local and state struggles around ballot propositions or progressive and left candidates.

Perhaps related to this one-sidedness, the overall package is long on process, dynamics and tactics, short on strategies for assembling any kind of alliance or social bloc that can barge into national politics and advance empowerment of the oppressed.

Yet if these shortcomings are especially pronounced here, at bottom they reflect weaknesses of the U.S. left as a whole. And as many letter-writers insist, they can only be effectively addressed by a true inter-generational effort. Such an effort is inconceivable without the central participation of the activists speaking here and those they represent, and without older activists learning everything we can from the messages these letters send.

In this light, the book’s preface by former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn is a missed opportunity. Her piece is a powerful call to struggle and well-crafted description of Letters’ strengths. But in discussing the 1960s it glides over the tough questions posed by the very activists she praises. This was a chance for the most well-known leader of one of the most controversial 1960s tendencies to address the challenge posed, for example, in “Dear older activists” by Chris Dixon:

“I especially want to encourage you to be more open about your uncertainties, your mistakes and your struggles….There aren’t too many visible models of folks who are courageously and compassionately self-critical…willing to talk honestly, humbly, and directly about their mistakes and sources of confusion.” Modeling that kind of engagement with the letter-writers would have been a wiser and more valuable choice.

For after all, what Chris Dixon (and many other letter-writers in different language) demand is both their need and their due. From those of us who have gone before they don’t require only – or even mainly – to be cheered on, encouraged, or implored to keep the faith. They have commitment, energy, tenacity and hope in overflowing measure. And they have the acumen to demand not just supporters, but active partners.

The responsibility of us older activists is to be as forthright, probing and self-probing as the letter-writers in this book. We need to lay out our experience and our conclusions and our questions, realizing that we will not be the ones to control what the next generation makes of it all or finds useful in the mix. Letters from Young Activists should spur us on. In approaching this fine book, and in our relationship with young activists generally, one of the prescriptions that has helped so many of us through other transitions should be our guide:

Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. Let go of the result.

Max Elbaum, active in antiwar and anti-racist movements since the 1960s, is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso, 2002), a critical/self-critical history of the post-1960s “new communist movement.” .