An Interview with Paul Buhle
There is probably no one in the world that knows more about the history of American radicalism than Paul Buhle. A former member of Students for a Democratic Society and a disciple of CLR James, Buhle founded the journal Radical America as well as the Oral History of the American Left project. He is the author/editor of nearly thirty books, including: Images of American Radicalism, Marxism in the United States, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story behind America’s Favorite Movies, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, The Immigrant Left in the United States, The New Left Revisited, Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, and the forthcoming From the Lower Eastside to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture. Buhle is currently teaching at Brown University. Left Hook’s DEREK SEIDMAN recently caught up with him for a short interview.
DS: I know that you take very seriously the idea of continuity throughout the history of American radicalism. When we talk about radical continuity, it seems to me we’re talking about how deeply the memory and traditions of our radical past have stretched into the present, in such a way as to, consciously or not, inspire and educate current efforts for social change. It’s certainly the case that radical continuity is visible in certain places. Take, for instance, the anti-war protests earlier this year: not only did they draw heavily on the experiences of the sixties in terms of organization and symbols, but many of the participants were veterans of those earlier struggles. But it’s also the case-and it seems most visible in the labor movement-that older traditions of militancy, solidarity, and class-consciousness, embodied by organizations such as the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the early CIO, have left a much weaker pull on the present. How strong and how important is radical continuity for us, and what parts of our radical past do you see as most important to draw on for lessons and for inspiration today?
PB: Continuity offers a difficult question with no easy answer, for a reason persistent in US radical activity: demographic transformation. What does the history of the fundamentally Euro-American labor movement mean for African Americans (when not excluded outright, nearly always relegated to its lower rungs), or to newer Latino and Asian immigrants? It remains to be established because we aren’t now seeing the moments of solidarity that recall the best of the legacies.
On the other hand, there is much current interest in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for the best reasons. It was at once egalitarian, bohemian, completely rebellious, and made its influence felt more through songs and slogans, heroes and martyrs, than organizational strength. Joe Hill is now better remembered than the thuggish-racist George Meany (let alone successor Lane Kirkland, his name unknown to an estimated 97 percent of the AFL-CIO members who he ruled). My urging of Wobbly legacies now is prompted by the pervasive sense that if strikes can be won and unions rebuilt, let alone a wider social movement created, Wobbly-like solidarity with the new immigrants is the most crucial factor.
Nearly all the particular struggles of the 1960s, as well, seem to be fading into memory except for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is fascinating because the current, standard liberal (and conservative) treatment of the era, from opinion columns to television mini-series, has affirmed a "safe" interpretation of civil rights as a call for meritocracy, rather than a "freedom movement" with a broader cause; opposition to the war, especially the impolite opposition in demonstrations, is viewed as inherently excessive, irrational and anti-American. Even those who improbably claim a part in the antiwar legacy, from Robert McNamara to the older intellectuals around Dissent magazine who blistered campus activists with attacks throughout the period, seem determined to make a similar distinction. Some protest, strictly acceptable to (say) the Americans for Democratic Action, is proper; the unguarded action of young people like the whole New Left was improper and, in the words of a recent New York Times reviewer, "almost as bad" as the US invaders of Vietnam!
"Black Power," like the Black/Jewish conflict used by demagogues on both sides (far more successfully by neoliberal and neoconservative Jewish elites, of course), has now been refracted by the Latino surge, whose diversity makes even "Chicano" seem a word from a long time ago. Lamentably, "feminist" is a word that not many young women want to hear-attaching it, as they seem to do, to the Glass Ceiling rather than social transformation-and "gay" or "lesbian" has become more lifestyle, albeit including an important appeal for tolerance, than political message. "Homocons" and black conservatives are the most heavily promoted political figures of the Right, and likely to remain so, along with hawk-liberals like Jean Bethke Elshtain, and the handful of erstwhile New Leftists who have, since the 1970s, become boosters for a sweeping global military crusade. Readers may want to troll the Website of First of the Month to see how bizarre the craving for militarization has become in some quarters, and what strange claims are made upon the 1960s to justify it. Then again, most of this sounds pretty much like the Congress of Cultural Freedom intellectuals, during the 1950s, enthusing at the military coup in Guatemala and adamantly refuting charges that African Americans weren’t receiving fair trials in the South. They, too, claimed to be defending democracy against totalitarianism-and making a good living for themselves in the process.
What remains from older struggles may be best symbolized in the timeless struggle against Empire and imperial militarization of life everywhere, in the name of planetary survival, egalitarianism, and real human freedom (not just "civic society," the 1990s favorite recipe for the unhindered accumulation of capital). This is not so far, after all, from the older visions of socialists, communists, feminists, etc., well articulated by Woody Guthrie in bygone days, Tony Kushner now. It’s no surprise to read savage attacks on Angels in America, very much in the old Commentary/Partisan Review fashion, in the pages of the New Republic or New York Review of Books: they firmly believe that they own culture, and the perceive accurately that Kushner’s popularity and critical acclaim is dangerous to that claim. Even the specifics echo the rage at Arthur Miller, and the ravings of Robert Warshow against Carl Foreman’s biting social commentary in High Noon, or again, Pauline Kael’s endless attack on leftwing films from Salt of the Earth to anything at all directed by Martin Ritt. She (and they) didn’t need to see a film or play to hate it; they only had to look at the credits to smell subversion, invariably described as bad aesthetics.
DS: In your book "Marxism in the United States", you wrote that "Marxism in the United States has been a class manifestation of the national question." This is a very interesting formulation- can you elaborate on its meaning?
PB: One of the chief results of my fieldwork, interviewing octogenarians of every Left milieu during the 1970s and early 1980s, was to fill in what I knew only abstractly: that the "foreign born" had been the majority of Marxists from the 1860s to the 1930s, and their children the dominant group probably through the 1950s (far more so if the Communist Party had not been repressed, and imploded). The formulation that you cite may be one of the most original in the book, because no one had appreciated the implications. Political and labor leaders had always urged assimilation, so as to reach "the real Americans." But the appeal of radical ideas was linked to the commitment to the homeland, and also a vision of a multicultural socialist America-even back in the 1880s. The idea of the US as a potential world society in itself has been, in a way, a consolation for the heterogeneous workforce unable to gain coherence within itself.
Let me put this another and directly more political way: the anti-immigration laws of the 1920s probably set up the working class "Americanism" of the 1940s-50s for a sharp rightward turn; the opening of immigration again during the 1960s has created once again the possibility of a global proletariat here. The progressive tilt of Dominicans in a little spot like Rhode Island has already had good effects, and not because these immigrants have ceased to think about the D.R.
DS: In that same book, you also posed the question (referring to Marxism): "Can a theoretical system historically rooted in response to Victorian capitalism hope to come to grips with the challenges of 2000?" This is a complicated question, and we can broaden it and ask (which you do in your book) about the complicated relationship between Marxism and American radicalism throughout history. At the time that Marxism made its entrance on to the American scene in the late 19th century, it was indeed a European import, with European immigrants as its strongest and most orthodox adherents. This is obviously not to say that the basic recognitions of Marxism-the class struggle, exploitation, etc.-weren’t grasped by the native born population, but that they were understood within a different cultural framework, which you sometimes refer to as our "common democratic sensibility". This "sensibility" arose from an entirely different radical tradition than that which Marxism emerged from; as you observed, "Native born Americans saw class and socialism in democratic terms", where as it was the opposite with most radical immigrants. Much more amorphous and less class-oriented and class-conscious, homegrown radicalism nevertheless carried with it as central the "ethical imperative of socialism", as you call it. All this being said, what do you see as the main tensions between Marxism and "homegrown" American radicalism?
PB: This is not quite right, and perhaps I have put it a bit imprecisely, because the obvious racial dimensions have always added another, related angle to the issues involved. For a long time, Christian Socialists made the best anti-racists, and their role has returned intermittently, sometimes from the heights of the National Council of Churches (or, in hemispheric terms especially, from Orbis Press, and the political arms of the Maryknoll Fathers). African American participation in leftwing political movements has practically always had roots in the Black church. Pacifism, related to these matters-interconnected with Empire-and going beyond them somewhat to global war and peace, is likewise an ethical, philosophical position with roots homegrown. Immigrant Marxists, their own backgrounds in free thought societies, had enormous conceptual difficulty valuing with anything religious. Where Euro-radicalism persisted over generations-especially among Jewish Americans-the strains of religious radicalism were (and are) thin compared to politically conservative trends.
I like to say, playfully, that the gentiles need socialist religious doctrines while Jews are free to be as atheistic as they want. But "atheism" has never had the strength of radical "spiritualism," the evocation of nature and of human possibility that was never absent from Jewish secular socialism either.
DS: You knew CLR James, and from what I know, he has been a central influence of yours. Can you tell us a bit about James, why he had an important role in the history of the American Left, and more importantly, why he is relevant to the Left today?
PB: I began publishing James’ essays in 1968 in the pages of Radical America, edited and published the first anthology of his writings in 1970, and with my fellow editors distributed his obscure pamphlets at the tail end of the New Left. To us, he was the Marxist with the deepest sense of culture, but he was also the last great Pan African figure, a universal thinker who could see the entirety of human history within details, and write about it brilliantly. He remains relevant and becomes more relevant because he saw, better than anyone else, how the ongoing process of capital drawing deeper and deeper into the layers of the planet’s population was creating new cultures of revolutionary possibility. He didn’t get stuck on the Second International model of building parliamentary socialist parties, or on the Third International model of creating State Capitalist economies. He saw a Lenin that few others appreciated (DuBois was one of them), and he never lost sight of the Caribbean promise. It’s still worth mentioning that The Black Jacobins is the novelistic account of the first successful slave revolt in two thousand years; like DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, it will never be out of date.
DS: You mentioned Radical America. Tell us about this: what it was, how and why it began, the role it played, and its overall vision.
PB: Radical America, whose origins are discussed pretty thoroughly in History and the New Left, was invented for the Radical Education Project of SDS. It came to life as a real magazine in Fall, 1967, largely thanks to a fellow graduate student in Madison, Jim O’Brien, and to O’Brien’s housemate (and local SDS chair) Hank Haslach, a Wobbly printer with a single-sheet press. Given the political moment, it took merely ferocious determination to put out bimonthly issues (the schedule was copied after New Left Review). Its vision was to put radical history to work, but also to reflect the radical cultural impulses of the moment, and until the New Left collapsed (also a bit after) it did marvelously. Its best strokes were probably underground comics, black proletarian history and women’s history, all new or renewed at that moment. I moved the magazine to the Boston area in 1971, and abandoned it to others in 1973.
What had been created and what remained, for years after my exit, was a distinctive New Left vision, the effort to create a history for a "radical America," something that (say) the Germans never had to do but would be quite as difficult in the UK as the US, although for somewhat different reasons. RA, at its best, had the CLR James vision of a movement that needed to replace the political State rather than infiltrating it, and a future that reflected what we called "self-activity," a descendent of Wobbly syndicalism, rather than social democratic or communist bureaucracy.
I have one more thing to add to this. The first, crude issue of Radical America carried a very old document by Daniel DeLeon, the first professor to preach anti-imperialism, and the popularizer of what he called the "Marx-Morgan system" (after anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan) of socialism as a new stage of civilization, succeeding capital and the political state. DeLeon, expelled from the IWW (in 1907), had reached me in 1963, thanks to the continuation of the tiny Socialist Labor Party.
I didn’t stay long in this museum of a political organization, but I did imbibe a quasi-anthropological vision, very common in the late nineteenth century (August Bebel’s Women And Socialism was an especially potent source) of competition as a phase between the cooperative pre-state, perhaps Neolithic "Golden Age" of old and the "Golden Age" to come. I never quite lost that sense, even if other Radical America editors might not have known what to make of DeLeon, the Sephardic immigrant from the tiny island of Curacao. But close observers commented, later on, that in traveling from Curacao to Trinidad (of CLR James), I hadn’t come so far after all. Or from another angle, the garment district bureaucrats of the 1920s accused their rank-and-file Communist opponents of being "gilgul DeLeonists," spiritual descendents of the uncompromising socialists of the 1890s. I was the gilgul DeLeonist within the New Left.
DS: Last question: I know you’re big on comics. What do you have to say about comics as a medium for radical ideas? And last question number two: what can we expect to see from Paul Buhle in the near future?
PB: From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture will be out shortly and wrap up more than fifty years of experience (since my first reading of Mad Comics, or perhaps it was the viewing of the very leftwing Superman and the Mole Men on my 6th birthday), personal and political. It is far from comprehensive-I wish I’d known that Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels has received an award for promoting Yiddish among Canadians–but I hope it will be read as a useful and also a deeply personal book.
So is the unfinished biography that I’ve drafted of C.L.R. James’s disciple Tim Hector, foremost socialist pan-Caribbeanist for the last quarter century, until his early death in 2002. Hector and I drew sustenance from the same well of knowledge and wisdom and this is a mini-history of the Caribbean Left, with its distinctive "reggae socialism," as well as a close reading of Tim’s life, the rolling general strike of Caribbean workers during the later 1930s, and other subjects. I’m hoping to finish the volume this Spring and it means a lot to me.
But I think my heart belongs now to comics, and to a related subject, the iconographic revolution of Hieronymous Bosch in the 15th century. Next year sees the appearance of a "graphic story" history of the IWW, on the centenary, co-edited by artist Nicole Schulman of the World War 3 Illustrated crowd. I aspire to more comics projects, republishing old things and creating new ones by scripting for artists. Several projects are in process, and if some succeed, it will take me back to my earlier days. All I’ve left out, I suppose, is Science Fiction (best left to my friend Kim Stanley Robinson, the greatest socialist science fiction writer in a long time), another source of my early (and never fulfilled) aspirations as a writer, and stand-up comedy, the Lenny Bruce that I still admire boundlessly (he stayed in the same fleabag hotel as me in San Francisco! But not quite in the same year) but don’t try to emulate. Instead, I’ve been luckily placed to be the Emcee at local protest events, off and on for forty years, and perhaps that’s my best spot.