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  • Frei Betto and Fidel Castro meeting to discuss problems of the day.

    Frei Betto and Fidel Castro meeting to discuss problems of the day.

Published 26 December 2018

Frei Betto, Brazilian writer, political activist, philosopher, liberation theologian and Dominican friar, offers his thoughts and some words of wisdom for leftist advocates and activists.

I would say that activists on the Left are the kind of people who, without necessarily calling ourselves leftists, believe in creating a better world in solidarity with the oppressed, and who struggle to achieve social justice.

1. Keep the fight alive.

Check in with yourself periodically to make sure you are actually on the Left. Use the Norberto Bobbio criterion which states that, for right-wing elements, social inequality is as natural as night and day. To the Left, however, social inequality is an aberration that must be eradicated.

CAUTION: You may be infected by the Social Democratic virus whose main symptoms are using right-wing methods to obtain conquests from the Left and, in case of conflict, to aggravate small issues so as not to look so bad on the big ones.


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2. Think with your feet on the ground.

You can not be from the Left without getting your hands dirty. Be where the people live, suffer, rejoice and celebrate their beliefs and their victories. Theory without practice plays directly into the hands of the Right.

3. Don’t be ashamed of believing in socialism.

The travesty of the Inquisition didn’t make Christians abandon their values and the teachings of the Gospel. Likewise, the failure of socialism in Eastern Europe should not induce you to discard socialism from the breadth of human history.

Capitalism, dominant for 200 years, has been a failure for a majority of the world's population. Today the world has 6 billion inhabitants. According to the World Bank, 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day; and 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day. The globalization of poverty is not as big as it could be thanks to Chinese socialism which, despite its problems, ensures food, health and education for 1.2 billion people.

4. Be critical without losing the ability of self-criticism.

Many leftist activists change sides when they lose perspective. Powerlessness embitters people, and they end up accusing their companions of missteps and indecisiveness. As Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" They do not strive to improve things. They become mere spectators and judges and, soon after, they become co-opted by the system.

Self-criticism is not only admitting one's mistakes. It is accepting the criticism of your colleagues.

5. Know the difference between being an activist and armchair activist.

An armchair activist brags about being at everything, of participating at all events and movements, of acting on all fronts. Its language is full of clichés and slogans but the effects of its actions are superficial.

The activist on the other hand deepens his links with the people; he studies, he thinks, he meditates, and qualifies in a certain way and area of action or activity, and values organic connections and community projects.

6. Adhere rigorously to activist ethics.

The Left acts on its principles. The Right acts on its interests. An activist on the Left can lose everything — freedom, employment, life — but doesn’t sacrifice its morality. Losing your values demoralizes the cause you defend and embody. This failure lends an invaluable service to the Right.

There are scoundrels disguised as activists of the Left. These are the kinds of people who are only interested in acquiring power. Using the name of a collective cause, they seek their personal interest first.

The true activist — like Jesus, Gandhi, Che Guevara — is a servant, willing to give his own life so that others may live. He does not feel humiliated because he is not in power, nor proud of his position. He does not confuse himself with the function he fulfills.

7. Nourish yourself with the traditions of the Left.

Prayer is necessary to cultivate faith, love is necessary to nourish a romantic kind of love. Returning to the basics is necessary to maintain a passionate reverence for activism. Learn the history of the Left, read (auto)biographies such as "El diario del Che in Bolivia’’ (Che’s Bolvian Diary) or novels such as "La madre" by Gorki or "Vinas de la Ira" by Steinbeck.


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8. Take the risk of making mistakes while with the poor rather than having the pretense of being right without them.

Living with the poor is not easy. First, there is a tendency to idealize them. Later, you find out that they have same vices that exist in other social classes. They are no better or worse than other human beings. The difference is that they are poor, that is, people deprived unjustly and involuntarily of the essential means for a decent life. That's why we're on their side, as a matter of justice. An activist on the Left never wavers on the rights of the poor and knows how to learn from them.

9. Always defend the oppressed even if he isn’t always right.

Poor people suffer all over the world, and that means you can’t expect them to have the same attitude that others have who may have had a solid education. In all sectors of society there is corruption and theft. The difference is that in the elite, corruption is done with the protection of the law and the thieves are protected by sophisticated economic mechanisms which allow the investment class to crash a whole country.

Life is the greatest gift from God. The existence of poverty cries out against heaven. Do not ever expect to be understood by those who allow the oppression of the poor.

10. Make prayer an antidote to rigidness.

To pray is to let yourself be questioned by the Holy Spirit. Many times we stop praying so that we don’t have to listen to the divine call that demands us to change; that is, to change our direction in life. We speak like activists, but we live like the bourgeoisie, well-off or in the happy position of setting ourselves up as judges to those who are in the struggle.


Frei Betto
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