I guess I was born a rebel. My parents were active Progressives (pro-Soviet until 1956) while my maternal grandfather, Sam Levin, an immigrant tailor from Russia, was a card-carrying member of Eugene V. Debs’ American Socialist Party. During his Presidential campaigns, Debs barnstormed the U.S. on a train called ‘The Red Special’ making whistle-stop speeches in every town and city, including Hartford, Connecticut. That’s how my grandfather got his autographed picture, a prized possession of his which I inherited along with his library of Socialist books. This makes me a ‘red-diaper’ grand-baby.
My Dad came from a middle-class progressive Roosevelt Republican background, but the First World War opened his eyes. Patriotic ‘Teddy’ Greeman served in four campaigns 1917-1918 as a U.S. Army ambulance driver under command of the French Army and won a Croix de Guerre for bravery while touring France’s bordellos (marked with an X in his driver’s book, which I also inherited and published, along with his war stories as Grandpa’s War). Teddy Greeman also saw a lot of gore and fell in with the Lost Generation until he met Grandpa ‘Uncle’ Sam (Levin), who helped him understand the underlying economic causes of all that senseless slaughter. Then he turned Left. When I was eight, he ran for N.Y. State Assembly on the American Labor Party ticket, the N.Y. branch of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. Then the Cold War broke out.
In the 6th grade, at the beginning of the Witch Hunt, I was labeled a ‘Communist’ during Social Studies class by the son of a local ‘liberal’ Democrat politician, who must have heard his parents badmouthing mine. I had zero idea of what a ‘Communist’ was back then (we were ‘pwogressives’ at home), but I knew that label could get me in trouble. Never at a loss for words, I instantly retorted that I was not a ‘Communist’ but a ‘commonist’ because I was ‘for the common people.’ This inspiration shut the pint-sized red-baiter’s nasty little trap, won the approval of my 11-year-old classmates, and has defined my political outlook ever since.
The other reason I was destined at birth to rebel is the clubfoot I was born with – a fairly spectacular birth defect long considered incurable. Horrified, my parents must have imagined me hobbling around on crutches for life, like one of those beggars depicted in 17th Century genre paintings. Fortunately my parents found a German refugee doctor in NY who by 1939 had devised an effective treatment and I grew up completely normal – physically. I don’t think my parents ever got over the shock and the shame of giving birth to a ‘monster’ (one of my ‘cute’ family nicknames) which may be the source of my various neuroses. In college, however, I learned that Lord Byron was also born with a clubfoot (incurable then) which didn’t stop the dashing poet and romantic rebel from swimming the Hellespont, seducing the most fascinating women of his age and dying in the cause of Greek independence. Clubfoot Byron became his own hero by picking up his pen and turning his shame into a blaze of arrogance, rebellion and splendid poetry – much of it subversive and satirical. The same Oedipal impulse, minus the poetic talent, probably motivates me to scale the battlements of capitalism and engage in mental strife with Vegetarian Sharks. Another thing that set me apart from the regimented herd as a boy is that I was no good at competitive sports. I spent most of my time alone reading, dreaming and constructing rubber-powered models out of sticks of balsa wood covered with tissue paper. Some of them even flew pretty well before crashing! I finally learned to enjoy sports in my 30s, when they went co-ed, but I still read lots of books and construct models – political models and RFOs (Revolutionary Flying Objects) like the eco-Socialist Utopias with which I conclude this collection. On the other hand, I was good at making jokes and arguing. My finest hour as a teenage atheist was during a High School debate on school prayer. I proclaimed myself a worshiper of Zeus and demanded the right to sacrifice a goat in the Auditorium. My argument: ‘Doesn’t the First Amendment prohibit favoring one religion over another?’ Only later in life, under the beneficent influence of some good grass, did I discover that I am, if not a personal devotee of Zeus, by nature more of a tree-hugging pantheist than a doctrinaire atheist (too negative for my temperament).
Although hostile to all monotheisms and nationalisms, I’ve always been comfortable with my religious/ethnic ‘identity’ as a secular Jew. (I couldn’t imagine being anything else.) I have a Jewish sense of humor and I’m attracted to Yiddish Culture. So much for ‘identity’ – that over-simplified and dangerous delusion! Most people ‘are’ many things all at once: not just ‘Black’ or ‘Gay’ or ‘American’ or ‘Jewish’ or Female’ or ‘Moslem.’ Existentially, we all create ourselves out of our heredity, citizenship, education, gender, class, ethnicity, age, culture, occupation and a whole complex of unconscious attractions and elective affinities. Naturally, we must defend our own and everybody’s right to fully develop all these identities without oppression or disrespect. But in my opinion, reducing politics to ‘identity’ blocks individuals from developing a true, rounded human identity and sows division where we need to have unity among the oppressed. In any case, I will remain Jewish until the death of the last anti-Semite.
Concerning Yiddish culture, I learned to appreciate it through my adorable mother-in-law Mira Gilbert (Jenny Greeman’s grandma), who earned her living singing in Yiddish (among 18 other languages). Mira was born in Odessa in 1917 and was brought to Philadelphia in 1923 by her father, the Yiddish writer Berish Eppelbaum and her mother Tzina, a progressive educator. Mira introduced me to the actor Hershel Bernardi, formerly a child star on the N.Y. Yiddish stage, with whom she used to travel the Borscht Circuit of Jewish Catskill Mountain resorts. It was from them that I picked up the phrase ‘Killing the Jews’ – Borscht Belt slang for wowing the audience. In the hope of offending everyone, I have used that phrase as the heading for my chapter on Holocaust deniers (Part V). Far from being a ‘self-hating Jew,’ I joyfully embrace the self-irony and universalism of the Jewish Diaspora whose very exclusion enabled it to rise above narrow nationalism and produce the likes of Maimonodes, Marx, Freud, Einstein and Kafka. As for the Hebrew warriors and ignorant, intolerant, long-bearded theocrats who rule the State of Israel, how do they differ from the Ayatollahs and Holy Warriors of Iran?
In High School I grew a beard, learned to play bawdy folksongs on the guitar and refused to say the words ‘under God’ (which had just been added to the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag); all of this flamboyance upset my parents during the conservative, McCarthyite Fifties. During the Witch Hunt, it seemed better for Progressives to keep a low profile. By the Sixties Dad was marching down Fifth Avenue with his medals protesting against the Vietnam War. In college I became a Socialist, and I’ve been in and out of Socialist and Anarchist groups ever since. They taught me as much, if not more, than all my universities. I would like to recount this political education briefly here, since it helps explain how I came to the convictions that animate these essays. Many of the observations collected in this volume relate directly to my political involvements over forty years, and the reader has a right to know where I’m coming from.
My Political Education
1957+ As a freshman at Yale College I joined a vibrant student Socialist club called the George Orwell Forum. The Orwell Forum’s faculty mentors were two committed independent Socialists: Bob Herbert, an instructor in Art History and Bob Bone, a WWII Conscientious Objector, who taught in the snooty Yale English Department. Bone was a great speaker, a popular lecturer, and had just published The Negro Novel in America – the first academic study of black literature. Naturally he was denied tenure – which scandalized me at the time. What wonderful mentors! Bone got us students involved with the Civil Rights and non-violent anti-war movements. He even took us down to New York City with him for Socialist meetings after which we all adjourned to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street to get drunk with the likes of Norman Mailer, Mike Harrington and Brendon Behan. Reading Orwell cured me of my parents’ illusions about Russian Communism and the Orwell Forum put me in contact with Left anti-Stalinists who called themselves Socialists and meant it. Over the next four years the Forum held public meetings at Yale nearly every other month promoting socialism. Among the better known speakers we invited were (in no particular order) Norman Mailer (who was drunk and/or high and disappointing as a speaker but whom I beat at thumb-wrestling), Eric Fromm (who spoke on Socialist Humanism and filled Woolsey Hall, the biggest auditorium on campus), J. Farrell Dobbs (the historic Teamster organizer and Socialist Workers’ Party presidential candidate), Raya Dunayevskaya (who had just written Marxism and Freedom and founded News and Letters Committees which I eventually joined), the literary critic Irving Howe, the sociologists Lou Coser and Seymour Lipsit along with various other Dissentniks as well as a speaker from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. These are the names I recall, but there were others.
As a Yale Freshman I joined off-campus struggles including anti-war civil disobedience with the Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA), protesting against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and taking part in Civil Rights sit-ins and marches as a member of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE). I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became a revolutionary rather than just a young rebel. It was my personal experience participating in the 1958 national Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools – in the Spring of Freshman Year – that destroyed my faith in liberalism. Bayard Rustin, a black organizer from the War Resisters League (who had also spoken at the Orwell Forum) along with black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, had organized tens of thousands of kids, black and white and chartered buses from all over the East and Midwest to present our students’ mild desegregation petition to President Eisenhower. Ike refused to receive it, but that was no surprise. The surprise was that our 1958 Youth March turned out to be the largest demonstration held in D.C. since the Thirties and the first time since Populism that so many ‘Negroes’ and whites had come together in common cause in our nation’s still-segregated capitol city. Next morning, I eagerly opened the liberal N.Y. Times to read about our triumph. Ziltch. Nada. Not a line. I can still feel my young man’s anger in the pit of my stomach. And the conclusion in my mind: no way is this system ever going to reform itself or respond to sweet reason.
Today we have an African-American President, something none of us Civil Rights activists – who according to Mr. Obama made his election possible – ever even dared dream of! The fact that the U.S. electorate is prepared to elect an African-American represents an epochal advance in the struggle against racism. When I was in college, it was still ‘Whites Only’ and not just in the South. The heroic struggles of the Civil Rights generation have come to fruition, and a majority or near-majority of whites (more women than men) have overcome their prejudices and voted to put a ‘Nigger’ in a White House built by slave labor. Racism has always been the Achilles’ heel of progressive mass struggles in the U.S. Historically, it divided and weakened the once-powerful Populist and labor movements. ‘Black and White Unite and Fight! was the winning slogan of industrial mass unionism in the Thirties, but after the CIO got established, its leaders reneged on Operation Dixie and abandoned millions of black workers in the Jim Crow, Right to Work South. By the Sixties, lacking organization, frustrated, unemployed blacks (joined by some whites) were reduced to rioting in the cities of the North. Mr. Obama’s election suggests the possibility, during the inevitable upcoming social and economic struggles, of class unity among U.S. poor and middle-class working people of all so-called races. Only such popular alliance – including male and female, gay and straight, immigrant and native-born, white, black, Hispanic and ‘other’ – can mobilize the necessary strength to defeat the well organized sharks of U.S. corporate capital.
As for the ineffable Mr. Obama, no man can serve two masters. So far he has served billions on a platter to his financial backers – the bankers and corporations who paid for his campaign (and broke the economy). As for all those folks who voted for ‘Change,’ danced in the streets on Election Night and traveled to D.C. to share in the Inauguration, the President has even-handedly thrown this electorate a few scraps of Chump Change. Mr. Obama’s even-handedness reminds me of the Army cook who served ‘rabbit stew’ to the regimental mess. When a trooper complained that the meat tasted like horse, the cook confessed that his recipe called for ‘equal’ amounts of horsemeat: one horse, one rabbit. Of course, as the crisis deepens, the President can be expected to make concessions to the masses who elected him (especially if they are militant and organized) and throw in a few more rabbits. The former community organizer may even want to do some good. Didn’t FDR famously tell a delegation of progressives: ‘I support what you propose: now make me do it.’? Does Mr. Obama’s election contradict my 1958 conclusion about the system’s inability to reform itself and listen to sweet reason? Not when the peace candidate’s first act as Commander in Chief was to order the murder of 15 Pakistani civilians from the air and escalate the un-winnable Afghani War. Indeed, I have seen little evidence of change in the past 50 years. In 2002-03 the Times and other media willingly trumpeted Bush’s false claims about Iraqi WMDs and Saddam’s relationship with Osama, just as they had previously concealed the truth about the U.S. ‘secret’ invasion of Cuba in 1963 (the Bay of Pigs) and endorsed LBJ’s lie about an alleged North Vietnamese attack on U.S. destroyers in 1964 (the Bay of Tonkin Resolution). And now Afghanistan has escalated into Obama’s Vietnam without a whisper of opposition in Congress or the media. In 1964, Texas Populist Lyndon Johnson was elected by a popular landslide and used it to push through the War on Poverty and the historic Voting Rights Act. Four years later he abandoned politics in disgrace, having destroyed his immensely popular and progressive Presidency by escalating a war he inherited from his predecessor. Am I the only one alive who remembers? How come none of the pundits are making this analogy?
Returning to New Haven in 1957, by now I was a Beatnik (Hippies didn’t appear until nearly a decade later) and met my first love (an art student who could have modeled for Jules Feiffer’s ‘Dance of Spring’) at a Gregory Corso poetry reading. As a Freshman I also became a member of the Young Peoples’ Socialist League (YPSL). The YPSL’s leader was Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, the book that inspired the War on Poverty. The Orwell Forum invited YPSL’s over-aged but still youthful spokesman to Yale, and Harrington gave such a wonderfully rousing Socialist speech that I asked to join on the spot. This remarkable youth organization exemplified what was truly new in the New Left: a rejection of both U.S. imperialism and totalitarian Communism. We YPSLs were all involved in struggle as anti-war and anti-racist activists, but we also knew our Marx and Lenin by heart and held full-scale political debates, defending our platforms with position papers (mysteriously known as ‘documents’) and oratory – always passionate and sometimes humorous. At YPSL summer camp I even dared contradict the adult leader of our movement, the formidable debater Max Schactman. You had to be tough to be an independent Socialist back in the Cold War Fifties, attacked one side by the red-baiters and on the other by the Stalinist crypto-Communists who still held onto key positions in the Left movement. Both were formidable adversaries, and you had to stick to your guns. Last year, when the YPSL held its 50th reunion, a remarkable number of us ‘youths’ were still more or less Socialists and activists, and few if any had actually gone over to Right. Unfortunately, by the end of the Sixties many among the next generation of New Left students had reverted to Old Left Stalinism under the aegis of Stalin’s Chinese disciple Mao Tse-Dung. Disillusioned, many later abandoned socialism altogether and some turned sharply Right.
By my Sophomore year the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement and its Comandantes Fidel and Raoul Castro, Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegas had established a serious guerrilla presence in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba and called upon Cubans to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Batista. The rebels denounced the two props of its neo-colonial economy: sugar monoculture export agriculture and gangster-ridden Havana casino/sex tourism. I followed this struggle closely through friends in the N.Y. Socialist movement and a remarkable series of articles in the N.Y. Herald Tribune by Tim Hogan, a young reporter ‘embedded’ with the guerrillas, and I was thrilled when the people of Havana rose up in December 1959, overthrew Batista, and welcomed Castro and his guerrillas into the liberated capital. Here at last was a self-organized, self-proclaimed humanist revolution taking place in my lifetime after long years of apathy and reaction. With Jonathan Spence, Yale’s exchange student from Cambridge University in England, I helped organize the first student trip to Cuba over the 1959 Spring break. Spence and the other students returned enraptured, and the stodgy Yale Daily News printed a favorable series on Cuba. We also promoted the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which further enraged the scions of rich Latin American families who were an important contingent of the Yale student body. One night a half-dozen of these señoritos put on nylon stockings to disguise their faces, heroically broke into my college room and attempted to abduct me in my pajamas – perhaps to shave off my beard, which presumably reminded them of Castro’s. After a brief scuffle in which my 5’4” roommate, the poet and pianist Bruce Berger, distinguished himself in my defense, the old Irish campus guard arrived and my aristocratic assailants fled the field of honor. None were disciplined, and I got off with an admonishment from the College Master, a biologist, to watch out or I would never get a job because of ‘security clearance.’
The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, with its slogan ‘Hands of Cuba!’ was organized defend the Cuban revolution against attack from Yanqui imperialism. In 1961 we demonstrated at CIA headquarter at Langley Virginia to expose the ‘secret’ army the CIA was training in Guatemala to invade Cuba under U.S. air cover and establish a beachhead counter-revolutionary regime at the well-named Bay of Pigs. The Times and the rest blanked out our protest as well as the documented first-hand report from Guatemala published in the Nation, but I had a great time going down to D.C. singing with a busload of Hispanics (of course I brought my guitar) and improvising ¡Cuba si! ¡Yanqui no! to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s Day-O. When the invasion finally took place, we were jubilant when the Cuban Popular Militias defended their revolutionary homeland so fiercely that the CIA-trained and equipped invaders were chopped up on the beach. A half-century later I am still campaigning for ‘Hands off Cuba!’ or rather ‘Hands Out to Cuba!’ and to the Cuban Artists we want to bring to the U.S. as a first step to lifting the blockade and normalizing relations.
However as early as 1961, troubling reports were filtering out of Cuba. Camilo Cenfuegos, considered the most liberal of the Twenty-Sixth of July Comandantes, had disappeared in a mysterious air crash. Blas Roca, the head of the Stalinist Cuban CP (which before the revolution had attacked Castro’s guerrilla war as ‘adventuristic’) was now put in charge of a new state party, superceding the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement which had actually made the revolution. The workers’ trade unions were being dominated and curtailed by the state, with Che Guevarra in charge of the economy. Dissidents were being repressed, women demoted, Trotskyists arrested. None of these problems were acknowledge by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, whose leadership was dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party. Apparently, the SWP had opportunistically replaced Trotsky with Castro as their poster-boy, and they had a positive explanation for everything, including the imprisoned Cuban Trotskyists, who belonged to a different Trotskyist sect and were ‘probably counter-revolutionaries’. One night in New Haven in 1961, a man who had just returned from Cuba took the floor at a ‘Hands off Cuba’ meeting. He turned out to be Tim Hogan, the author of those thrilling 1959 N.Y. Herald-Tribune reports from the Sierra Maestra. After the meeting Hogan wandered the New Haven night with Jon Spence, Tom Doyle and me and told us his story. The Trib had fired him for being too radical, and the Cuban government, grateful for his contributions, had invited him to join the Ministry of Information. However, Hogan had seen too many things that disturbed him in Cuba to accept such a post. Now, he was back in the States and unemployed, his loyalties torn between the urge to testify to the truth about the Cuban Revolution and fear of giving ammunition to its Yankee imperialist enemy.
Thirty years earlier in Russia, the writer and revolutionary Victor Serge was caught in a similar dilemma when the Soviet Revolution started turning sour. Serge formulated his solution as the militant’s ‘double duty.’ Defend the revolution against its external enemies: imperialism and reaction. But also against internal enemies : bureaucracy, conformity, dictatorship. Under Castro, Cuba went backward to sugar monoculture on state-run plantations, locking the island into dependency and leaving it undeveloped. Castro’s famous Six Million Ton Harvest (during which U.S. volunteer cane-cutters consumed more than they produced) was sold at a loss when the price of sugar fell on the world market, as pre-revolutionary Castro had warned. Today Havana, the Cuban capitol, is once again famous in Europe as a retro (Batista era) center for Euro-denominated casino- and sex-tourism. Yet there are still fanatics on the U.S. Left who will malign you as a traitorous scoundrel if you dare suggest that Cuba is anything less than a ‘Socialist’ model. (Come to think of it, Castro used this same tactic in the campaign against ‘Anti-Communism’ by which he silenced opposition to Blas Roca’s bureaucratic Communist take-over of the party and state. To these would-be censors I answer: How are revolutionaries supposed to learn from our past mistakes if we’re not allowed to admit them? In any case, although all the new Latin American democracies correctly and proudly defend the Cuban revolution against the U.S. blockade, none seem eager to imitate the Castro regime.
1959-60 During my Junior Year, I was lucky enough to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. As opposed to the U.S. where we Socialists had been reduced to a marginal handful, France had several Socialist parties and a legal Communist Party with officials at the head of many unions and municipalities. There were even two parties to the left of the Left who were about to unite, and Mike Harrington of YPSL had given me the address of Jean-Jacques Marie, who was very much involved and who invited me to observe. At that time, France was quagmired in an endless racist colonial war in Algeria against the independence movement led by the FLN. By 1959, the Algerian war, escalated under a Socialist administration, had become even bloodier than the Indochinese (Vietnam) war the French had lost in 1954. This was because Algeria was considered part of France, making it both a race war and a civil war. White-settler Algeria was represented in the National Assembly like the Dixie states in the U.S. – with voteless Arabs and Berbers taking the place of our disenfranchised American Negroes. In 1958, a year before I arrived in France, the Algerian civil war had provoked the collapse of the Fourth French Republic. General de Gaulle had taken power as a spokesman for the colonial Army and the militantly rightist Algerian white settler movement (both of which he subsequently double-crossed). In Paris, every Algerian on the street was considered a ‘terrorist.’ There were soldiers with sub-machineguns in front of every public building and great bus-loads of black-clad CRS riot-cops parked all over the student quarter. Censorship was strict. The drowning of hundreds of unarmed, peaceful Algerian demonstrators in the Seine remained an official secret for decades. Accounts of torture were also censored, although one book, The Question by Henri Alleg a French-Algerian Communist who had been tortured, did get through somehow and made a sensation. My observations in France lead me to the conclusion that internal democracy at home and imperialist war abroad are incompatible. This was the teaching of Thucydides, the 5th Century B.C. Greek historian who observed how the Athenian expedition to colonize Sicily provoked the fall of Athenian democracy. So in 1961 when Kennedy starting meddling in France’s ex-colony Vietnam, I was well ahead of the learning curve. The Teach-ins we organized then were the beginning of what became a massive anti-war movement in the late Sixties. Thucydides’ observation still holds: the first victim of Bush’s Iraqi expedition was the U.S. Constitution.
As I arrived for my first day of class at the Sorbonne, a stunningly beautiful young woman handed me a leaflet inviting students to a public talk on the Algerian rebellion. Naturally I showed up breathless that evening at the Mutualité (Left Bank labor-Socialist conference center). Since Catherine was seated way across the room, I was able to concentrate on the speaker: Jean-François Lyotard a Marxist philosophy teacher who had taught in Algeria. The sponsoring group was Socialisme ou Barbarie (Socialism or Barbarism) founded in 1949 by a group of highly creative revolutionary workers and intellectuals including Lyotard (later a post-modernist), Daniel Mothé (who worked in an auto plant), Alberto Meso (‘Vega’ of the Spanish POUM), Edgar Morin (the philosopher of Complexity/Emergence) and Cornelius Castoriadis, the brilliant Greek economist and philosopher whose powerful mind and personality more and more dominated the group. I soon joined the group, whose anti-Stalinist socialism appealed to my own, and Castoradis’ visionary account of a possible future democratically self-organized Socialist society free of hierarchy has stuck with me to this day. My final chapter here, ‘The Archimedes Hypothesis’ was inspired by reading Castoriadis’ The Content of Socialism in 1959. My great contribution to this historical movement was to organize U.S.-style parties (‘socializations’) in order to attract some more young people to the group. But imagine my chagrin when I naïvely attempted to get a date with 19-year old Catherine and learned what everyone knew: that she was living with Castoriadis!. I think the experience of living in another political culture gave me a much broader perspective on U.S. culture and society than if I had remained in New Haven at WASPish, all-male Yale College for four years, and I’m appalled at the number of U.S. leaders today who speak no foreign languages and have never left the Great American Mall.
In 1960, back in New Haven for my Senior Year at Yale, I heard about Robert Williams, an African-American Korean War vet and the author of the sensational book Negroes With Guns. Naturally I invited him to speak on campus at the Orwell Forum. Williams had become notorious in 1960 by organizing an NAACP -sponsored NRA Rifle Club with other black vets in rural Pennsylvania and by defending his community against an armed attack by the KKK. Williams’ perfectly legal NRA-NAACP Pennsylvania rifle club was the ancestor of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. I printed up posters headlining ‘Negroes With Guns‘ and spread them all over Dixwell Avenue, the African-American section of New Haven. I also handed them out at black churches that Sunday. The posters came to the attention of the Dean of Yale College, who called me onto the carpet in his austerely imposing office. ‘Mr. Greeman,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you afraid of bringing violence on campus if you go through with this meeting?’ ‘Not in the least, Dean Devane,’ I answered. ‘I give you my word as a gentleman on that.’ This left the Dean speechless. To make him feel better, I reminded him: ‘Don’t you remember appealing to us in your welcoming speech to the Freshman Class to overcome town-gown hostility and bring more members of the New Haven Community onto campus?’ There was nothing left for the poor man to say. The night of the big meeting, the 500 seat auditorium was full, and half the audience was black. Williams never showed. By that time, he had been forced to flee to Cuba, but his lawyer, Conrad Lynn, an African-American Trotskyist, showed up in his place. However, instead of talking about Williams and the black liberation struggle, Lynn started a long lecture praising Castro’s Cuba. Since I had the Chair, I was able to get the subject back to racism in the U.S. and particularly to discrimination in New Haven by drawing the crowd’s attention to some flagrant examples. Immediately, a local African-American factory worker (who also a Korean War vet I later learned) stood up to speak. He identified himself as the new President of the NAACP and called for action against the liberal Democrats’ Model City program which leaders of the black establishment were supporting in return for a piece of the real-estate action. A lively general discussion ensued and the result was the organization of a radical CORE chapter and two years of activism, fighting Kennedy’s Urban Renewal program, spelled ‘Negro Removal’ as far as New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue was concerned.
When the Williams meeting was over and the crowd had gone, I carefully cleaned up the auditorium before leaving for the benefit of Dean Devane. A few students, including a friend named Steve Adolphus, were still chatting on the sidewalk as I passed on my way to join the comrades at George and Harry’s Pizzeria. Five minutes later, Steve showed up breathless: ‘Did you see those two guys in trench coats on the sidewalk just now? Well, when you crossed the street one of them started to follow you, but the other grabbed his arm and said ‘No, schmuck, you’re supposed to give ‘em a head start!’’ I just laughed, and in all these years I have never been visited by the F.B.I. who mainly go after ‘weak sisters’ they can manipulate. A few years after LBJ pushed through the Freedom of Information Act in 1964, I applied to order a copy of my file. At that time it weighed in at 1200 pages, beyond my budget at ten cents a page. So I went for my CIA file (only 36 pages, mostly blacked out for ‘security reasons’) and discovered that every step of my 1969 European travels had been monitored. The lesson I learned as a young radical was this: don’t go paranoid over idea that the cops and FBI are watching you. Assume they are doing a good job keeping track of your public activities, your phone, post and email. If you do something illegal, take the reasonable precautions but don’t play games with them, it only gives them a wedge by letting them know you’re worried and vulnerable.
In 1960 I encountered the Russian-born Marxist-Humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, a former secretary to Leon Trotsky in Mexico who, had demonstrated that Communist Russia was, in Marxist terms, a state-capitalist society. Dunayevskaya had spoken at the Orwell Forum while I was away in France, and Jonathan Spence lent me her book, Marxism and Freedom which had a profound and lasting effect on me. Subtitled From 1776 to Today, her book traces the development of Marxism from its origins in French revolutionary thought, British political economy and Hegelian dialectics through its full humanist flowering in Capital and the Paris Commune. She then analyses its degeneration at the hands of Social Democratic opportunists and Stalinist totalitarians and describes it persistence and restoration in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution of Workers Councils and the daily struggles of U.S. workers against capitalist automation. The morning after I read it, I hitch-hiked to meet her. Her Detroit-based organization was nearly unique in combining blacks and whites, workers and intellectuals, women and men on an equal footing. I soon became a member of her allegedly ‘decentralized’ Committees of workers and intellectuals publishing the monthly newspaper News & Letters out of Detroit, and I organized a local chapter in New Haven with an iron worker named Tom Doyle, who became a close friend and mentor. I spent that summer in Detroit, then the headquarters of the U.S. auto industry and of News & Letters Committees, where I learned a lot talking to workers. Despite my problems with News & Letters unacknowledged centralism and cultish sectarianism, I remained active for fifteen years and recruited a whole new generation of Marxist-Humanists before being pushed out of the organization on phony charges and for no other reason than my generally questioning critical-minded attitude. It saddens me that a group with such a humanistic philosophy and democratic principles should be so undemocratic and inhuman in its internal life. However, for objective reasons I continue to support the newspaper http://www.newsandletters.org as a unique source of U.S. workers’ voices and Marxist analysis along with articles by youth, prisoners, black, gay and lesbian activists speaking for themselves. I also still consider Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom the best introduction to the subject and have recently sponsored and prefaced Russian and Arabic translations of this fundamental work.
The other big influence on me at that time was the work of Franco-Russian revolutionary Victor Serge (1890-1947), whose novels and books of history and journalism were written in French – my academic specialty. Several of my U.S. radical mentors were Serge fans and pointed me toward his books, at the time long out of print. (Curiously, I had never heard his name in France or in a French class.) Serge was a witness-participant in revolutionary events in Spain, France, Russia, and Germany during the first half of the 20th Century as well as a brilliant novelist in the French language. An early opponent of Stalinism with one ideological foot in Anarchism and the other in Marxism (and no foot in capitalism), Serge made all the right enemies, spent ten years of his life in various prisons, and died in poverty in Mexico. Back in 1961, when I first got my hands on one of Serge’s books and read it in French, I instantly made up my mind to translate his novels into English and make him the subject of my research. By chance, a Paris bookseller put me in touch with Serge’s son and companion in exile, the artist Vlady, and we began a friendship that lasted until his death in 2006. Vlady was born during the Russian Civil War in 1920, grew up in Leningrad, and followed his father and his Left Oppositionist comrades into exile on the Ural, then to Belgium, France and Mexico. He was a marvelous conversationalist, knew everybody, and claimed to have ‘pissed on Lenin’ as a baby (his mother was one of Lenin’s stenographers and took her baby to work, where Lenin picked him up and got wet). Vlady’s magnificent painting and graphics are visible at http://www.vlady.org
1961+ As a graduate student, later Instructor and Assistant Professor at Columbia University in the Sixties, I participated in the anti-racist and anti-Vietnam war movements, and did some off-campus labor and tenant organizing with CORE. I also got around New York and hung out with Anarchists like Russell Blackwell, Sam and Esther Dolgoff and radical journalists like I.F. Stone and Daniel Singer. After a summer working with mainly black workers around News & Letters in Detroit, I arrived in New York as a Marxist revolutionary and began working to establish a new ‘local’ (what the Communists called a ‘cell’) in for my new organization – led by Trotsky’s former secretary, the hereditary Bolshevik Raya Dunayevskaya and carry out my revolutionary duty. ‘The revolutionary’s duty is to make revolution,’ famously said Che Guevara, who then proceeded to commit revolutionary suicide by wandering around in the Bolivian forest carrying a gun, ignored by everyone except the CIA who caught and shot him. Nonetheless, the revolutionaries of the Weather Underground and the French Maoists followed his suicidal formula in the Sixties, with disastrous results, alienating the public from growing radical mass movements and providing the cops with a legal pretext for repressing them. In contrast, what I would like to share here is my own small-scale experience of the day to day, nuts and bolts practice of a revolutionary movement with long-term goals.
What Do Revolutionaries Do ?
What did I know at the age of 21 about being a revolutionary organizer and educator (propagandist)? Basically I improvised on what I had learned from experience working with seasoned revolutionaries of earlier generations in Europe and America and listening to their stories of yet earlier generations. I added what I gleaned from books, particularly revolutionary biographies and autobiographies, this oral tradition, now nearly extinct, which is what I am attempting to pass on here. So let’s start with some basics. Revolutions happen when masses of people rise up. Conscious revolutionaries are like the yeast cells that leaven the dough. By ‘revolutionaries’ (as opposed to reformers and people of good will) I mean individuals who have become aware that the system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) is the problem and who are prepared to struggle for fundamental change. To be effective, they must be part of the struggle, just as yeast or leaven must be mixed into the dough to let the bread rise. Through education and organization they help the masses to empower themselves in two fundamental ways: by connecting present struggles with the lessons of past struggles and the future perspective of a new society and by connecting local struggles to the global struggle to overturn capitalism. To maintain the continuity of such educational and organizational activities, revolutionaries must of course themselves be organized. The problem of revolutionary organization is a thorny one, which I grapple with in ‘The Invisible International’ and ‘Lenin Horizontal and Vertical’ (Parts I and IV).
To make revolution, the first thing you need is a publication, the revolutionary’s major organizing, educational and outreach tool. A paper – even a flyer – which you can leave with people you want to organize so that they can continue to think about your conversation. A paper they might pass on to a friend. A paper with a contact address. A leaflet, a pamphlet, a newspaper or a book like this. Today that job has been made easy by computers, Kinko’s and the Web. In the Fifties and Sixties we spent endless hours in print-shops or typing stencils and cranking mimeograph machines. Both Pouvoir ouvrier in France and News & Letters practiced an original kind of revolutionary journalism, soliciting and printing the views of people in various struggles. This created what we would call today a favorable feed-back loop, giving a voice to people in factories, placing them in the context of a revolutionary perspective, building bonds between the paper and its readers. This process takes time, but it works.
My first move, after getting settled in N.Y. was to scout out an auto factory to whose workers I could distribute my monthly bundles of News & Letters, edited by Charles Denby (Simon Owens) a black auto worker at Chrysler’s in Detroit and full of articles about the industry. There were no auto plants in the city, but Ford had built a modern, highly automated assembly plant (now closed) in Mahwah, N.J. out in redneck country, to which hundreds of black workers commuted daily from New York City, Newark and Jersey city. For a period of more than five years, every month our paper was published I did a distribution, putt-putting out to Mahwah at six am on my old 125cc motorcycle and handing out hundreds of copies to workers rushing in to punch a time clock. Workers distrust phonies, so I always dressed as what I was, a professional intellectual (in those days we wore ties and jackets). At the beginning, my future bride, Julie Gilbert courageously rode on the back of that $200 East German MZ bike and helped hand out the Marxist paper, and her charm may have softened its reception. Later other comrades, strapping lads like Mike Flug, Ray Ford, Bob French and Steve Handshu would reluctantly join me. Especially after I got kicked off the parking lot and then picked up by the local Sheriff and charged with Criminal Anarchy for distributing papers to carloads of workers leaving the highway near the plant gate. Distributing to cars can be hairy, as the workers are in a hurry and hostiles can take a swipe at you. But you want to give your paper to workers going in to the plant, where it might get discussed or left in the lockers for others to read. I used to get catcalls of ‘Castro’ from some older whites on account of my beard, but blacks were much more friendly once they had read the paper, and carloads would sometimes ask for extras.
Still it was very difficult to establish feedback under such conditions. What we were able to learn about conditions in the plant got into the paper and distributed: unbearable summer heat in the shop and discrimination in the union favoring older, white, skilled tradesmen against younger, black production workers. And then one day in the middle of the revolutionary month of May 1968, we Marxist-Humanists suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a major wildcat strike. A worker’s caucus called The United Black Brothers of Mahwah Ford’s had closed down the plant, taken over the union hall, and invited us in as honorary Black Brothers (only one of us, Ray, was black). Standing in the urinals, Steve Handshu, who was white (and blind to boot), heard a suspicious black voice down the row asking ‘What’s he doing here ?’ Before Steve could think of a reply, a black voice from the other side answered ‘He’s here because he knows he’ll never be free until the rest of us are,’ which thrilled teenage artist Steve. We soon discovered that the leaders of the movement had been reading our paper regularly, and two of them traveled with us over Labor Day for a News & Letters national convention in Detroit. While there, they also visited the United Auto Workers HQ (and ended up getting bought off by the union, as can happen when the ultimate goal seems too far off). Meanwhile, that very same month in France, a wildcat strike and sit-in at an aircraft plant in the North, co-inciding with the student occupation of the Latin Quarter in Paris, spread from factory to factory and turned into a General Strike which nearly brought down the government. I was not surprised to learn years later that the aircraft factory sit-in had been sparked by an old comrade from our Pouvoir ouvrier group (long since dissolved) who, as a rank-and-file militant, had earned the respect of his fellow workers and knew what to suggest – form a strike committee, occupy the plant, and send delegates to other factories – when the right moment presented itself.
Most self-styled ‘revolutionary’ sects are parasitic, rather than creative. Some think they can recruit by sending young members to swarm around demonstrations and meetings like flies hawking their papers. Other ‘revolutionary’ parasites join ongoing activist movements for peace and justice with the perspective of ‘boring from within,’ taking over the leadership, imposing from above what they consider the ‘correct’ political line. These ‘rule or ruin’ tactics lead to endless power-struggles and splits, inevitably weakening the cause and driving away sincere activists in despair. In the Sixties, ‘revolutionary’ sects like the Socialist Workers’ Party (the largest of the Trotskyist parties), Youth Against War and Fascism (neo-Stalinist), Progressive Labor Maoists and Guevarists infested the anti-Vietnam War movement. It happened again in 2002, when there were two big national anti-Iraqi war demonstrations in Washington on two successive weekends because of disagreements between the leaders of two coalitions.
In contract, the example of that old French comrade, whose local intervention in 1968 may have sparked a General Strike, personal contact and participation in concrete struggles are the revolutionary’s other important tools. You really have to invest yourself in a struggle and demonstrate your sincerity, loyalty and good sense to your comrades before you can expect to recruit them. In the Sixties, my work in the Congress of Racial Equality – organizing against racism in housing and organizing minority workers in low-wage industries – brought me into contact with black working-class militants like Don Petty and Blyden Jackson in New Haven, who also considered themselves revolutionaries. We all three then moved to N.Y., where Blyden became active in Harlem CORE. I joined CORE at Columbia and worked with Mike Flug helping the super-exploited Columbia cafeteria workers get union representation, a struggle which had failed in the Thirties and ultimately triumphed in 1968 with the support of the student strike. Over time, CORE student activists like Mike Flug, Will Stein, Anne Jaffee, Bob French, Judy Miller and Allan Wallach were won over to our Marxist-Humanist network, while Ray Ford came to us through the Maryland Freedom Union struggle, a CORE outreach project in Baltimore.
We were also active in SDS’s predecessor at Columbia, the militant Independent Committee Against the War in Vietnam led by Dave Gilbert organizing demonstrations, sit-ins and teach-ins (where my knowledge of the French Vietnam War came in handy). Our activity and our politics were gaining our local new members and influence among the most thoughtful activists. Indeed, we could have had a more powerful influence during the 1968 events and perhaps successfully defended SDS against Maoism and mindless ‘revolutionary’ violence, were it not for the intervention of the News & Letters leadership in Detroit, which broke up our great team and severed its members from the organic situation in which they had won respect. You see, News & Letters Committees were ‘decentralized’ in name only, and local committees were not really expected to improvise or act autonomously as our NY local did. This autonomy must have been perceived by Raya and the old guard as a threat to their power, because as fast as I could recruit new members, the leadership would move them to the ‘Center’ in Detroit. Thus on the eve of the 1968 upsurge, Mike Flug our local’s most experienced and charismatic Civil Rights, labor and anti-war organizer was pulled out of the struggle and summoned to Detroit – presumably to further educate him and, I now suspect, to remove them from my evil Anarchistic influence. The same thing happened seven years later, after I succeeded in organizing yet another new local in Connecticut, which the leadership simply dissolved, summoning my recruits to the Center and leaving me and Tom Doyle out in the cold. After years of denial, I finally let myself see the huge gap between ‘Marxist-Humanist’ theory (decentralization, self-development, anti-vanguardism) and practice.
Like I said, revolutionary organizations are problematic. The cult of Raya’s personality in News & Letters was mild compared to other revolutionary cults like Gerry Healy’s once influential Workers’ Revolutionary Party in Great Britain, where discipline was zombie-like and female comrades were exploited as concubines by their leader. We will return later to the vexed ‘party question.’ Meanwhile, I hope that something useful and positive emerges from this experiential account of Socialist revolutionary practice as I inherited it and came to understand it. What I learned in that school is that practicing revolution does not mean substituting yourself for the mass movement like the Che or taking over its leadership or manipulating it like the Trotskyists. The model of the revolutionary I gleaned from the example of my Anarchist and Marxist mentors consists of participating authentically in the struggles of your time while openly sharing your revolutionary perspective in ways that invite others to think for themselves, organize, and empower themselves. In contrast to the military model of a ‘vanguard of revolution’ (watch out for that gun!) and the medical model of ‘midwife to revolution’ (easy on those forceps!) I like the biological metaphor – perhaps inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s image of the ‘organic’ working-class intellectual – of us revolutionaries as yeast cells leavening the dough – or fermenting the beer if you prefer!
The highpoint of my activities at Columbia was the April-May 1968 student strike and occupation. Our Six Demands englobed university racism (Columbia’s takeover of a Harlem public park), university complicity with the Vietnam war (secret military research) and student rights (amnesty for the students disciplined for sneaking into the President’s office to copy evidence of these secret contracts). The unity of black and white students and of students with community residents made for the power of that strike, which flourished even under Police occupation of the campus. I talk about my 1968 adventures and reflections on the Sixties in Part III (‘Where Are the Riots of Yesteryear?’)
1970+ In the wake of the Columbia Rebellion, I was invited to a forum on ‘student power’ at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and ended up being offered a teaching job there, which I accepted against my better judgment on the assumption that after 1968 I was washed out at Columbia. True, Wesleyan was considered very liberal. ‘Marxism’ was fashionable in academia then, and I was an attractive candidate as both a serious scholar and a semi-famous radical. But having observed that there were three conservatives and one Stalinist in the Foreign Languages Department, I had a premonition they would unite to stab me in the back (which) they eventually did. So I tried to wiggle out of the deal by demanding more goodies (Julie was dying to leave N.Y. and I was afraid to disappoint her); but the Wesleyan administration took my arrogance for assurance, assumed I had another prospect, and ended up making us an offer I couldn’t refuse: a white house with green shutters in the country for Julie and for me a sabbatical in France in the first year of my contract! My Wesleyan misadventure was thus a double case of mistaken identity. Wesleyan thought they were hiring an intellectual academic neo-Marxist, not a committed practicing Marxist. One winy evening, my Chairman wrote me a letter stating I was ‘unfit to teach’ at Wesleyan because of a televised anti-war speech I had made earlier that day at a mass rally in Hartford (see below). This censure was a blatant violation of my academic freedom, but the subsequent painful tenure battle taught me that however ‘liberal’ these elite institutions profess to be, the Old Boy system still trumps free speech.
The highpoint of my activites at Wesleyan was the May 1970 nation-wide student strike protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, the shooting of student protestors at Kent State and all-black Jackson State, and the murder trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in New Haven. The strike spread like wildfire to campuses across the country, marking a new nation-wide phase of the student anti-war movement and a new unity between black and white students. Unfortunately our national student organization, SDS, had been scuttled and dismantled by quarreling Mao-inspired factions, and it proved impossible to consolidate this new high stage of the struggle. Our strike movement at Wesleyan was a model of organization. The night the news of the bombing broke, I drove to the campus to find the student body completely zonked on the lawn waiting for a rock concert to begin. I asked to make a brief announcement over the PA and called an organizers’ meeting for 3 am after the concert.
By 9 am there were flyers all campus over calling for a ‘Town Meeting’ at noon, and flying squads of students announcing it in every class. The plan was to have four five-minute speeches explaining the situation and then throw the mike open until everyone who wanted to had spoken. We had prepared three demands: U.S. out of Indochina, Free Bobby Seale and all political prisoners, End university complicity with the war machine. To present them, we chose a faculty member (me), the leader of the student anti-war group (Steve Talbot), one of the first female students (Dierdre English) and Isaac Barret, a black Air-Force vet on scholarship, whose call for unity won over the more or less separatist Afro-American students from Malcolm X House. After more than an hour of very open and passionate discussion, the students voted unanimously to strike and begin setting up committees to go out into the community and explain their demands. Subsequent Town Meetings reaffirmed the integrity of the Three Demands and the unity of black and white they represented. Nor did Summer vacation end the community outreach. (Indeed, some of those Wesleyan Class of ’70 rebels are still out there.) I later adapted this organizing model – calling a Town Meeting (or general assembly), inviting representative speakers to present a coherent proposal, and then opening the microphone for full and free discussion – to other situations like the 1971 Middletown March and Rally which mobilized over 500 local trade-unionists, high school students and blacks, and I still recommend it as a way of empowering people.
As a newly-unemployed college French teacher stranded in Central Connecticut (Durham, then Hartford) during the Seventies, I went native. I grew my hair long, planted tomatoes and got involved in all kinds of grass roots activities and organizations from local strike support to anti-nuke, anti-war, anti-racist and Central America solidarity and environmental groups. The issues of U.S. intervention in Central America and later in Iran and Iraq were central to our preoccupations. We were a loose coalition of about a hundred Quaker pacifists, Unitarians, Liberation Theology Catholics, Puerto Rican nationalists and labor organizers (some still Communist Party members) but we had a much bigger audience. I had learned my organizational skills in the N.Y. Socialist movement, and I had a ball in Connecticut organizing rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins and crazy media events on a small, manageable scale. The most fun was being able to confront public officials on a local level, face to face. And to write nasty radical Op-Ed pieces for the local press and get them printed – often thanks to my sense of humor. I got to grapple with and embarrass the likes of Senator Thomas Dodd, Rep. Nancy Johnson and General Alexander Haig (Nixon’s Chief of Staff and then CEO of Hartford’s United Technologies).
In those recession years, thanks to Richard Nixon’s instinctive New Deal atavism, unemployment insurance benefits were automatically renewed every six months as long as the unemployment rate didn’t decline. It didn’t, and I collected for 18 months. Since I considered myself more or less black-listed in academia during an acute job shortage, I turned to other ways of making a living. I applied to law school, got admitted, but couldn’t borrow enough money to go. Meanwhile, the U.S. had moved into the New Age of personal growth, and without abandoning Marxism I dabbled in Zen, self-development, Gestalt, anti-psychiatry, encounter groups, Primal Therapy, sensitivity training and Non-Violent Communication. I was already in therapy for personal reasons. (I had fallen into a chronic depression after losing my job – like my Socialist Grandpa, Uncle Sam the tailor, during the Depression.) Psychology fascinated me, and for a while I even considered becoming a therapist. I studied books, went to workshops, sought supervision from the head of the local Community Mental Health Clinic and started a therapy group in my basement. But I soon figured out that until I had finished my own therapy and got rid of my own meshugas, I would lack the objectivity to see others clearly (the Freudian ‘counter-transference’). So I closed my basement workshop but remained active in the humanistic psychology movement. This involvement scandalized my ‘Marxist’ peers, who rejected psycho-analysis as a petty-bourgeois, individualistic cop-out – while unconsciously acting out their own neurotic compulsions as authoritarian sectarians in the political field. Of course there is no basic contradiction between the discoveries of Marx and Freud, synthesized by Wilhelm Reich, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse on whose theories I base my analysis of ‘Religion and Repression in the U.S.’ in Part II.
Reflections on Violence
I also began to reflect on the implicit violence of intolerant ‘revolutionary’ groups who label their opponents ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and repress internal critics. I shudder to think what these uptight true believers would do to folks like me once in power. Is pinning a political label on someone any different than pinning a bull’s-eye to his chest for the convenience of future firing-squads? By the Eighties, Maoist and Trotskyist sects had begun systematically disrupting their rivals’ meetings physically – in the name of revolutionary purity. Were they not acting out physically the psychological violence underlying sectarian organizations that claim to have a monopoly on political truth?
In contrast to the power-struggles and intolerance I encountered on the political Left, my experiences with the various non-violent movements I worked and acted with felt much more human and grounded. I engaged in civil disobedience for the first time as a Yale Freshman in 1957 in Hartford, refusing to take cover during an Atomic Attack Drill with a bunch of ‘Christers’ (as Bob Bone ironically called his Christian comrades) from the Committee for Non-Violent Action. I learned some non-violent tactics in the Civil Rights movement influenced by Ghandi, King and Bayard Rustin, and in the Eighties I worked with Quakers, Unitarians, Catholic Worker and Liberation Theology Catholics – both in Hartford and in Nicaragua, where Christian Base Communities among the poor were a mainstay of the Sandinista Revolution. These ‘Christers’ were usually more radical and more fun than the self-designated professional revolutionaries of the Left. Therapy had taught me how to get back to feelings, and I could see how the authenticity of non-violent actors who recognize the humanity of the adversary or oppressor could only produce positive results, both in practical terms and in preserving the integrity of the actor. In any case, it beats screaming ‘Off the Pig’ at a line of well-armed cops.
That was what was going down the morning of the Anti-Aircraft demonstration at United Technologies Board of Directors Meeting in Hartford in 1972. Before I went into action I was scared shitless, but I had the courage to face my shameful feeling and even share it with my comrades. After that I was overcome with the kind of calm where you feel simply present. Time seems to open up, and you do what you have to do right in the moment. So I walked over to the young student who was shouting ‘Off the Pig’ (or its equivalent) at the cops, and when he took a break I asked to use the bull horn. First I said hello to the cops, who were presumably almost as scared as me behind their uniforms, and I humorously suggested that for $8.50 an hour it was not worth the risk of injury in a fight with these wild-looking kids. ‘$9.25,’ one cop yelled back, and I knew we had an understanding. Humor and honesty often have that effect, and I had acknowledged their humanity – the first step in non-violent communication. I then reminded the student protestors behind me that we had come here not to fight cops, who are only city employees, but the capitalist warmongers – the Board of Directors of United Tech meeting on the other side of the fence. I even added that, unlike the cops, many of their parents probably made money from UT stock via their retirement funds, as did the universities where I taught and they studied through their endowments, whereas the cops’ kids were more likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. (Total authenticity is the necessary condition for non-violent communication.) So why were we picking a fight? Who is the real oppressor? Didn’t we come here to protest Hartford’s highly profitable capitalist arms industry? This non-violent political intervention worked so well that the student organizers asked me to repeat it that afternoon in front of 5,000 people at a mass Anti-Aircraft Rally and Rock Concert downtown in Bushnell Park. Apparently while I was flaked out on the lawn, media-hound Abby Hoffman had shown up (after the scary direct action) and provoked another confrontation with the cops by shouting ‘Fuck’ – thus transforming our serious anti-capitalist anti-war demo into a ‘filthy speech’ riot. My political rap went over even better this time, and everything got mellow again.
Non-violence is powerful. On the historical scale, the massive non-violent struggle against institutional racism won us the 1965 Voting Rights Act which made Mr. Obama’s election possible. During WWII the organized non-violent underground in German-occupied Denmark succeeded in saving the Jews; and through sabotage, strikes and boycotts it eventually forced the Nazis to pull out. In France, by contrast, armed attacks on Germans provoked massive reprisals against innocent French civilians and did little harm to the Nazi war effort – unlike the effective non-violent sabotage by ‘careless’ French railroad employees and workers in arms industries. Non-violence does not exclude militant force and takes advantage of the massive numeric superiority of the oppressed over the oppressor. The February (March) 1917 Russian Revolution that overthrew the Czar was non-violent to such a degree that citizens who didn’t read the papers were unaware that the troops sent to shoot the strikers had fraternized. The Autocrat of All the Russias had abdicated when he learned that none of his government’s orders were being transmitted, much less carried out. Mass non-violence is very powerful and I am convinced that the developing revolutionary Emergence will be largely non-violent (planetary strikes and boycotts, local land invasions, factory occupations). In any case, I agree with former Weather Underground leader Mark Rudd’s conclusion that in the 21st Century, the revival of Maoist-type armed struggle would be suicidal, given the array of high-tech weapons of terror and forces of repression at the disposal of modern national-security states.
The only way to change the world today is by taking the war toys out of the hands of the powerful few, or rather out of the hands of the poorly-paid working-class troops and mercenaries they hire to repress us in every land. This necessary disarmament of capitalism’s repressive apparatus will be the essential problem of the coming social struggles that capital’s deepening economic and ecological crisis is engendering. I am morally certain that non-violence is the only practical solution when faced with high-tech superviolence, and that the global revolution will probably be carried out not by armed revolutionary cadres but by women of faith, people of color, the indigenous, young people and small farmers together with billions of us poor and middle-class proletarians who attempt to sell our labor-time for salaries or wages (hopefully with benefits). Our greatest weapon is talk: to remind our uniformed brothers and sisters that we’re all in the same boat, talk them out of killing us and invite the to come over to our side. Perhaps we will succeed, like the Russian women and workers of February 1917 and the Portuguese who approached the troops with red flowers during the Carnation Revolution of April 1974, which overthrew Europe’s oldest dictatorship. Let me close this parenthesis on Non-violence with an historical observation. Once soldiers fraternize and mutiny, their lives and safety depend on convincing the rest of their comrades in arms in other units to join them (rather than shoot them) and so such mutinies spread within hours. And one never knows when the first crack in the sea-wall of military discipline will open, allowing the flood of human sympathy, solidarity and desperation to pour through the breach. In the words of Leon Trotsky, on trial for conspiring to commit violence as the President of the Petersburg Soviet in the 1905 Russian Revolution, ‘The strength of the masses is in their willingness to die, not in their willingness to kill.’
1975 After two years of unemployment, I found a job teaching French at the University of Hartford, just when our daughter Jenny was born. U.H. is a new private school, largely dependant on the local arms industry for financial support. Yet, like the cat who came back the very next day, I somehow managed to hang on for twenty years to retirement as an outspoken anti-war Socialist – despite being denied tenure twice (a record!). My career was saved in the end thanks to a campaign mounted by Charles Ross, our local AAUP president, the support of a fair-minded conservative Dean (former Navy carrier pilot) and to the sympathy of colleagues who had come to appreciate satirical jokes at Faculty meetings and hard work around faculty salaries and benefits. Needless to say, I continued my Central American Solidarity work, writing Op-Eds, organizing demos and a state-wide Teach-In at the University of Hartford in solidarity with the people El Salvador, oppressed by a U.S.-backed death-squad government. I spent the summer of 1984 in Sandinista Nicaragua learning Spanish and observing the Presidential elections then in progress. I lived with a family in Managua, went to the Sandinista rallies (including one showcasing Jesse Jackson), and I hung out with Liberation Catholics, thanks to my connection with Father Tom Goekler from Hartford. Accompanied by a nun, I even got to visit the Open Prison where former Somocista National Guardsmen were being rehabilitated. I also stood on the Honduran border with Witness for Peace and visited our Hartford-Ocotàl Sister-City project. I saw no signs of political police or the kind of repression they have in Cuba. I read the conservative opposition press, which was far more violent in its anti-government attacks than any opposition U.S. paper (are there any?), and I talked freely with members of conservative opposition parties, whose election billboards were quite visible. I deliberately sought out the tiny Trotskyist, Communist and Maoist hard core splinter groups who were out of favor but also out of jail. (Quite a contrast with Cuba.) The Sandinistas won the 1984 election I had come to monitor, but the U.S. government and media, under Big Brother Reagan, simply ‘disappeared’ the unfavorable vote.
I wandered the country by bus, and saw signs of popular initiative and creativity, like cooperative workshops and a green energy project where they got gas and fertilizer out of pig-shit. Everywhere kids in school uniforms. No beggars on the street. Up in the war zones, friendly teenagers in mismatched camouflage carrying AK47s, polite to women and eager to ask a North American if he knew Michael Jackson. (Many Nicaraguans also knew about Jesse Jackson, then running for President, but they mistook him for Martin Luther King.) A young revolution. I was older (and taller) than almost all the Nicaraguans. Obviously a Yanqui, I experienced no anti-Americanism. This despite a U.S. blockade which left hospitals and clinics without basics like hypodermics, sterilization or X-ray equipments and farms without spare parts for tractors. This despite U.S. backed right-wing Nicaraguan death-squads known as Contras, whose raids deliberately targeted teachers, nurses, and co-op organizers so as to prevent the popular revolution from succeeding. The night I arrived in Ocotàl they assassinated a local agronomist, and instead of attending a fiesta I was swept up in a crowd of mourner marching behind his body, held aloft by his comrades. While I was down there, a CIA training manual was found on a captured Contra recommending these targeted assassinations of civilians. Despite this U.S.-financed civil war against Nicaragua’s ‘aggressive Communist dictatorship,’ the Sandinista revolutionaries managed to maintain an open society, dialogued within their own ranks and with other parties, and held free elections. Their worst mistake (aside from having mishandled the indigenous Meskito question on the East Coast) was reluctance to grant the peasants title to occupied lands of émigré counter-revolutionary landowners. These title-deeds would have made the agricultural revolution irreversible and assured the revolutionary regime of permanent peasant support against the U.S.-backed counter-revolution. I returned to Hartford inspired by the courage of this young democratic revolution, more determined than ever to struggle to make the U.S. government end its support of the Contras. I wrote, demonstrated, organized teach-ins and gave talks with my slide-show in public schools, churches, union halls, even a singles club (Hi, Sharon!). Reagan was asking for $100, 000, 000 in Contra aid, explaining away atrocities with the fable that the Sandinistas were massacring their own people and blaming it on the Contras, as illustrated below by a Hartford street-theater group.
Bedtime for Bonzo Players in front of CT Rep. Nancy Johnson’s office 1985: Ranjon Batra plays a Sandinista pretending to be a Contra; John Bach is Bonzo and I’m Nixon.
1997-2008 By 1996 I was burned out teaching incurious undergraduates who were attending college only because their parents could afford the tuition (which I couldn’t when Jenny was old enough for college) and who treated the professors like servants. After 22 years of teaching, the University of Hartford generously awarded me a Sabbatical, and I headed to Montpellier, the old university town on the Mediterranean where the rollicking Utopian satirist Rabelais had studied medicine during the Renaissance. After tasting Montpellier, I couldn’t stand the idea of returning to Hartford, and the University Administration was more than happy to grant early retirement to its perennial gadfly. So here I sit writing this memoir in the sunny South of France awaiting the end of capitalism on the shores of the polluted, but still swimmable Mediterranean Sea. Here I devote my non-beach time to dreaming up Revolutionary Flying Objects, completing my biography of Victor Serge while publishing and translating his writings. I also organize support for various internationalist causes among them: the Iraqi Freedom Congress (defending secular Iraqi Women and trade-unions) and the EcoSocialist International Network, and I participate in the global justice and anti-Iraqi war movements, traveling to Social Forums and Left-Wing conferences. I see myself less as an expatriate or a political exile (although a French passport might come in handy some day) than as a cultural refugee from malls and fast food (although they’re now all over France which has a bourgeoning obesity problem). I began writing in French for the local left-wing daily Herault du Jour (from which some of the articles published here are translated). I called my column ‘The World is my Country’ – the motto of the radical pamphleteer Tom Paine, my hero, who agitated in Britain, America and revolutionary France and identy myself as an ‘internationaliste new-yorkais.’
Like so many Jewish radicals, I have emotional ties with Russia, and when Gorbachev took power, Jenny any I were among the first Americans to visit the USSR unhampered by official guides at the invitation of progressive, non-government labor and environmental groups (informali) including Socialist dissidents. Our experience as Western radicals re-connecting with the Russian anti-totalitarian Left after a 60-year gap was profoundly moving. I was able to make contact with Serge’s sister-in-law Anita, who had survived 25 years in the gulag, and other anti-Stalinist resisters, as well as with scholars and activists interested in Serge. To fill their thirst for knowledge, I organized the ‘Books for Struggle’ drive, which shipped a container of ‘political dynamite’ to Moscow, where we created the Victor Serge Public Library and the Praxis Research and Education Center. Praxis, which unites Marxists, syndicalists, Anarchists, ecologists and radical humanists, opened its doors in 1997 and has translated and published in Russia a number works of Victor Serge and other anti-totalitarian Socialist writers. Today under the Putin regime, this project is under threat (see ‘Stop Political Terror in Russia’).
In December 1997 I was invited to newly liberated South Africa, to attend an International Conference in Cape Town called by the South African ‘Workers’ Organization for Socialist Action’ (WOSA), some of whose leaders had recently emerged from years in Robbins Island, the Apartheid government’s political prison where Nelson Mandela, now President, also served time. WOSA was loosely allied with anti-Stalinist revolutionary Socialist groups from other African lands as well as groups from Italy, Mauritius, Brazil, Australia etc. I went as a delegate from Praxis in Moscow. Our idea was to create a flexible, horizontal International Network for a Socialist Alternative, and turn the old world upside down by meeting in the Southern Hemisphere. This Network model was a healthy rejection of the usual top-down, hub and spokes, centralized model of yet another ‘Fifth International’ centered around a few intellectuals based in Paris or New York. Visiting Capetown and meeting these African and international revolutionaries was a thrilling experience. I thought something new might emerge, but sadly our ‘international network’ fell apart after a year due to inevitable sectarian power-struggles. Again the contradiction between libertarian theory and authoritarian practice.
This failure, and other experiences with the organized Left in which I had operated for so many years shocked me into rethinking a whole series of assumptions. It also inspired me to return to our 1968 slogan ‘All Power to the Imagination’ and seek a more visionary approach to revolution based on cybernetics, emergence theory and Quantum logic, rather than on non-dialectical Newtonian reasoning. Ideas I develop in my ‘Archimedes Hypothesis’ in Part I. I also imagined a kind of Utopian sci-fi novel, The Revolutionary KIT, in which a massive multi-player on-line computer game called ‘Billions versus Billionaires takes over the world. I also began to think in terms of Utopias. Not Greeman’s Utopia, singular, but Utopias, plural – self-organized and federated through Internet. If you want to play at dreaming up possible Utopias (no Gods or extra-terrestrials) please join us in creating ‘virtual worlds whose economy is based solely on human need, and not on profit’ by visiting http://wikitopia.wikidot.com/ Let’s pool our knowledge and ideas so we’ll have some idea of where we want to go if we manage to survive capitalism’s collapse.