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What Can We Learn From Aaron Bushnell’s Self-Immolation?

Article published:
A smiling clean-cut young white man in a white shirt- Aaron Bushnell- superimposed on an image of a crowd. Half the crowd is in black-and-white and half in violet duotone, with a lone violet figure on tha black-and-white side.

Aaron Bushnell’s call to action pushes us to consider the relationship between individual moral commitment and collective political action.

Twenty-five-year-old Air Force service member Aaron Bushnell’s February 25 self-immolation was an urgent call to act against US complicity with Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.

What does it mean that someone committed to ending the Gaza genocide believed the most effective way he could contribute was to raise his voice while dying a terribly painful death? What is then expected of those of us committed to collective political action? This knotty question has cropped up for me at various times since the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) first put Vietnam on my mental map 61 years ago.

With admiration for those monks, for Norman Morrison and others in the US whose self-sacrifices jolted my conscience in my formative years, and for Aaron Bushnell, I will take this opportunity to reflect on the contributions and the limitations of individual acts of protest, the urgency of mass political organizing, and some things the Left can learn from Aaron Bushnell, Norman Morrison, and Thich Quang Duc.  

Making a difference via moral witness

Like so many others of my generation who did not grow up in a left-wing family, television images first put social and political conflict high on my mental map. I turned 16 in 1963 to a screen filled with police dogs attacking civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama and Buddhist monks immolating themselves in Vietnam. Two years later, Quaker pacifist Norman Morrison immolated himself outside Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office in the Pentagon.

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As I got increasingly involved in antiwar activism in the following years, I encountered numerous activists whose commitment was based in one or another religious tradition and whose action strategies mainly involved acts of moral witness, including civil disobedience and other actions that risked long-term jail sentences. These included a group of people who came together at the Casa Maria Catholic Worker House in my hometown of Milwaukee. They entered the offices of Wisconsin draft boards, took about 10,000 files, carried them outside and then set them on fire with homemade napalm. The “Milwaukee 14,” as they became known, then remained at the site, reading from the gospels and singing. Most of the 14 were subsequently sentenced to two years in jail for theft, arson, and burglary.

I admired the courage and commitment of all those who took such actions. I recognized that their deeds touched the conscience of many people (including me) and prodded us to act. But the deeper I plunged into the then-surging movements against racism and war, the more I found that reaping the urgent call embedded in acts of moral conscience completely depended on those of us prepared to engage in the rough-and-tumble of real-world politics and mass political organizing.

Mass politics, collective action

What became steadily clearer to me is that it would take concerted action on the part of millions of people to shift government policy and the course of the country. The practitioners of moral witness played a role in awakening those millions. But they had little to offer in terms of making political action accessible to “everyday people” or guiding organizations that were engaging the complexities of a political system with real but limited democratic space.

I was also uncomfortable with the undertone of elitism among some in the moral witness community who valued those who made the most sacrifices above those most effective in making social change. In morality-based protest, there was no common reference point or criteria to guide action; decision making defaulted to an individual’s sense of what was most pure, what did or did not constitute complicity with or opposition to ongoing injustice.

Moreover, the urgency of the fight for peace and equality convinced me that making a difference would take far more than awakening a moral response. We were immersed in a clash of social and political forces, and different people’s sense of morality varied by their location within an unequal social system. What was the underlying nature of that system? What were its weak points? Which constituencies within that society had the most potential power to change it? How could a political force be built that had not just the sympathy but the participation of people whose choices were constrained by their need to work and fulfill family responsibilities?

The people I met (and readings I devoured) with the most to offer on these questions came from the world of organizers, many of them Marxists and people influenced by Marxism or other mass political engagement traditions. These included numerous activists and leaders who spoke clearly of their deep moral/religious motivation (first and foremost the towering figure of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) while focusing their public activity on building mass political action.

In that context—and in a time when Marxist-Leninist movements had great prestige as leaders of liberation struggles around the world—I embraced a version of that framework. I continued to respect those practitioners of “moral witness” but found their protests insufficient. What mattered was “getting it right” on questions of political analysis and strategy and conducting extensive practical work building both broad mass movements and some kind of collective revolutionary formation.

My sense of the centrality of these matters was reinforced in the late 1980s and 1990s when, along with others, I took stock of the failure of the “new communist movement” in which I had participated. Our overestimation of the Left’s strength coming out of the 1960s, plus our underestimation of US capitalism’s resilience and the momentum behind a resurgent right wing, had trapped us in the margins. I was determined not to mis-assess the moment and the balance of forces again, and to contribute to meshing class and democratic struggles in a more effective way.

People’s capacity to change

I have stayed on that path for the last three decades. But Aaron Bushnell’s call to action stirred some thoughts that have been gnawing at me beneath the surface since 2016. I have been concerned that in the Left’s efforts to resist the authoritarian Right and build progressive political power we have not fully appreciated the complexity of different individuals’ thoughts and actions. I worry that we have become a bit too quick to put individuals—including those who are active in politics —into static pigeonholes, assuming that they cannot change.

In our doctrine, we on the Left of course assert that people can change. But is our belief as generous as Aaron Bushnell’s? He believed the current circumstances are extreme and hence required an extreme act—but it seems clear he also believed that in filming that act he could reach large numbers of people, and at least some portion of them would respond.

When we work from that same generosity, we do all we can to provide on-ramps for those who respond, so they can bring their views and talents into ongoing political engagement. Having confidence in people’s capacity to change is a crucial element in doing so effectively. That confidence underlies “Organizing 101” best practices: “meet people where they’re at” and “listen as much or more than we talk.” It steers us away from focusing on whatever prejudices or “backward ideas” people bring with them, toward embracing the positive reasons they are getting involved and proceeding from there. And within the ranks of those who have committed to left activism, can we do better at assuming good faith, and be done with purer-than-thou thinking that attributes political differences to other people’s failures of commitment or character flaws?

Put out the welcome mat

And for gaining the high ground in our fights against genocide, racism, and war, an expansive view of who can and should be part of our movement is of great value. Certainly, each individual in US society is shaped by their experience in a particular location in the socio-economic system. But no one is completely defined by that. Individuals can and do change in unexpected ways, as Aaron Bushnell himself did. And even the best analysis of class, race, and gender dynamics in US society cannot explain why the one-time head of a moderate caucus of Republicans (the Tuesday Group), Elise Stefanik, has become one of Donald Trump’s leading toadies, while arch-conservative Liz Cheney has sacrificed her political career to crusade against Trump and all who enable him.

Such individual variations do not invalidate Marx’s “materialist conception of history”; they bring it into closer alignment with the often-mysterious ways that specific events unfold and specific individuals interact with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Marx himself made this point:

“World history would… be of a very mystical nature, if “accidents” played no part. These accidents themselves fall naturally into the general course of development and are compensated again by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very dependent upon such “accidents”, which included the “accident” of the character of those who at first stand at the head of the movement.”

–Karl Marx, ‘Letter to L. Kugelman in Hanover,’ in Marx and Engels: Selected Works in One Volume, p. 681. 

Implications for a perilous time

We live in a terrifying time. A genocide is taking place in Gaza. Right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. A US variant of fascism is moving aggressively to capture full state power in this country. 

It will take effective political strategy and a massive collective effort to turn the tide. Without a ceasefire movement and a Left doing mass organizing and fighting for political power, the energy and commitment generated by actions of moral witness, even those that resonate as widely as Aaron Bushnell’s has, will dissipate. And our movement will gain strength when it welcomes everyone whose conscience has been jolted, and demonstrates that there is a vehicle to change the world that does not require exceptional individual acts, but rather offers a community of solidarity for the long-haul struggle ahead.

Building that kind of movement for a ceasefire in Gaza and for all the challenges that will face us once that is won seems to me to be the way we can best heed the call issued by Aaron Bushnell.