From Mennonite Pacifist to Marxist Revolutionary

Carol Andreas grew up in Newton, Kansas, as a traditionally minded Mennonite. Descended from wheat farmers in Ukraine, she ate traditional foods and followed traditional gender roles. As a child, she attended church every Sunday, prayed before meals, sang church hymns, and dressed modestly. When they voted (which wasn’t a given for this separatist religious group), they voted Republican.

At the age of 14, Carol fell in love with a fellow Mennonite. She wore a plain skirt with curls of shoulder-length hair falling out of a wool winter cap. He was a polite, responsible, hard-working, handsome young man who drove a shiny black 1931 Ford Model A coupe. The happy young couple intended to live a gloriously quiet life full of babies, hymns, and peppernuts.

Then the 1960s happened. They attended graduate school in Minnesota, then went off to run a medical school program in Pakistan. All of this was exciting, but Carol, who typed her husband’s term papers and took care of their three young sons, felt trapped. So she started a Ph.D. in sociology. Based on her experiences in Asia, she wrote critiques of U.S. aid to Pakistan, which she saw as a tool of political and economic domination. She read Marx, Engels, and other radical theorists. She threw away her mascara, hairspray, and bras. She took her sons to their first antiwar demonstrations before they could eat solid food.

Indeed, Carol often linked her twin passions of motherhood and justice. Launching a crusade in Detroit against G.I. Joe toys, which she viewed as an evil marriage of Amerikan militarism and consumer capitalism, Carol began a long career as a Marxist revolutionary. She went on to work as a community organizer, professor, and author of Sex and Caste in America (1971), When Women Rebel: The Rise of Popular Feminism in Peru (1985), and Meatpackers and Beef Barons (1994). (Here is one assessment of her career in social activism.)

It’s a fascinating story, told with empathy and texture by her third son Peter, in a recently released memoir entitled Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution. Using boxes of her diaries and letters he inherited after his mother’s death, he describes how his mother, ditching capitalism and monogamy, kidnapped young Peter from preschool in June 1969 and joined the revolution in Latin America. Enthralled by the Allende experiment in Chile, they survived the Pinochet backlash and moved to Peru, where they lived with peasant families. (For some photographs of these years, click here.)

In some ways, Carol’s new life resonated with her upbringing. She cared about social justice. She identified with the marginalized. She practiced simple living. She remained suspicious of wealth.

But her new political commitments took her far away from the traditional Mennonite commitment to pacifism. As Peter Andreas writes, “My mother firmly believed that it would ultimately take armed struggle to destroy capitalism. That’s why she not only tolerated but encouraged my brief love affair with guns.” He first got informal lessons in sixth grade at a pool hall in Colorado. After showing his mother his new .22-caliber Ruger at home, she said, “That’s nice. Just be careful.” He tried not to think about how his pacifist father, a conscientious objector who worked in a Civilian Public Service camp in Mississippi building latrines, would have reacted.

There were many other departures too. Carol treated Christmas like any other holiday. She did buy Peter gifts, but they were usually shoplifted—both as a way to save money and as a protest of corporate capitalism. If asked about her faith, she told people she was a pagan and worshipped the Andean earth goddess Pachamama.

In the memoir, Peter acknowledges that a child should not have to let a mother kidnap him in order to secure her love. A child should not have to watch her screaming political arguments (see here for context) with Marxist lovers. A child should not play with a loaded gun because it is “good training for the revolution.” A child should not grow up in three states, five countries, and a dozen homes between the ages of five and eleven.

When Mennonite relatives expressed concern, Carol retorted, “Nonsense. The best thing for Peter is to be part of history, not against it, to be with the people, not against them.” According to Peter, “A child need to be exposed to the world, and she wanted me to share in the thrill of real revolutionary change. In her mind, her embrace of revolution and rejection of the conventional definition of ‘good’ mothering was in itself proof that she was a good mother.”

In the memoir’s final pages, Peter, who is now a tenured professor of international studies at Brown University, seems to agree. Despite her embrace of hard-edged Marxist theory, Carol was a tender, if idiosyncratic, mother who lived a very human story. He writes that he would “never trade [his childhood] for a thousand ‘normal’ childhoods.” While many of her political views did not stick, she did manage to teach her son to be more aware of other peoples and cultures—and to be concerned about the world’s great injustices and inequalities.

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