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Mom left swiftly in the middle of the night, with men I had seen before. They were always in front of our modest home. Their vehicle ceased to be inconspicuous long ago, but now Mom had argued with them, and I was a terrified eight-year-old. Is Mom coming back? That night she returned and we did not see the men for a while, but we always sensed that they were closeby.
Many years later I found that they were FBI agents, following my father. I hated them. I blamed them for the poverty that surrounded us, the poverty that resulted from a society in transition from a backward, agricultural system to a more industrial one. I hated them for the troubled marriage between Mom and Dad, as she was in love with him while he seemed to be in love with revolution. The FBI was there on that night because we were a committed Marxist-Leninist family. That was part of my life as a red-diaper baby.1
The dreams of past beliefs
Our poverty was not fate but an imposition of a rigged system, one that kept us looking toward heaven while the capitalists were having a good time here on earth, as my dad used to say. The system we suffered reflected the nature of inexorable historical forces in dialectical motion. Our little Puerto Rican socialist party was at the center of events with universal implications. One day, our flag would fly victorious over the ruins of the old order, heralding the great Valhalla to come. Liberation from the shadows of the momentary unenlightened synthesis of history was imminent. Or so we believed.
We also believed that only by accepting that belonging to a social class defines identity could we come to understand our condition. We needed radical change, a collective effort that used us as faithful drops in the great wave of revolution. The effort was collective, as only the group could change the ideas, patterns of thought and modes of production arising from a system that determined everything. Meaning, purpose, and dignity resided in the wave of revolution, apart from which we were nothing more than curious accumulations of atoms destined to nothingness. I thought of myself as anything but unique and irreplaceable, and denied my moral capacity for self-realization. I did not perceive myself as intrinsically invested with the capacities of reason and volition that make me a subject with purpose, an engine of wealth creation. Only a drop in a wave …
From that perspective, we were informed by a radical skepticism about the notion of progress, human possibilities, and the role of the individual in transcending his reality. A sort of pervasive pessimism informed our thought about a system we perceived to have been forcefully contrived to serve the powerful. Today, the old-guard, orthodox Marxism-Leninism that guided my earlier upbringing seems to have run its course. Its assumptions, however, remain. Instead of a final conflagration, what has ensued is a steady stream of slight neo-Marxist cuts into the bleeding body of liberal society. From demolishing the capitalist system, we have moved to deconstruct the “Enlightenment project.” That is, we are expected to serve as catalyzing agents of the sudden rupture ushering in a new episteme, to use Foucault’s terminology.2
Although new forms of radicalism grew out of a disillusionment with orthodox Marxism, they retained its thrust toward activism and the belief that oppression brings alienation through the exercise of power. These new radicalisms have been deeply influential in…