The other day I received an e-mail from a stranger posing two questions that have been on my mind for some time; thus his message seemed uncannily personal.
“I was curious,” the writer said, “if you have ever looked at your political ‘apostasy’ and wondered whether, if circumstances had been different — if you had not been involved with the Panthers or if your friend had not been murdered by them — you would still be a Marxist today. Was your apostasy a result of an inexorable intellectual development, or were you forced into your second thoughts?”
In one form or another, this is a question just about everyone gets around to asking. If circumstances had been different, would my life have turned out differently? It is a question as old as philosophy — the puzzle of determinism and free will.
Not everyone, of course, experiences such a dramatic turning point in their lives as I did 25 years ago when the Black Panthers murdered Betty Van Patter. But we all can identify choices or decisions that changed our lives, moments when we suddenly set out on a new course. Each time these kinds of changes occur, they raise the question: Are they essential to our being, or only secondary to who and what we are?
In my case, I simply don’t know whether the intensity of my ideological transformation would have been the same had it not been provoked by an act of criminal brutality committed by my political allies and friends.
But I am confident that the change would have come, in any case. I have many friends and acquaintances who had similar “second thoughts,” in which they found themselves rejecting the ideas and understandings that motivated them when they were young, and I have no reason to suppose it would have been different for me.
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