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Eric Mann: Public Organizer

“I think that the left has a lot to offer today, if you don’t jump too far ahead and don’t think you’re anyone’s vanguard.”

– Eric Mann, Los Angeles May 28, 2018

Eric, I know that you’re written a dozen books, including most recently “Playbook for Progressives,” and that you’re now writing about your own life and times.

I think it’s important to look back and try to figure out the continuities, as well as to see the things you didn’t understand back when.

1968 was a big year for you personally, as it was for many of us who were born in the 1940s, and also for many of the baby boomers who came a bit later.

Absolutely.

Just to focus on 1968 might be exhilarating, but it seems ahistorical. It rips the year away from what came before it and from what came after it. 1969 was a continuation of 1968, but it was also a break from it.

By 1969, I had been involved in movement organizing for five years. Not just me, but a lot of people were exhausted by the time 1969 came around. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were dead and Nixon had been elected president. In 1969, there was a move toward ultra-leftism and an escalation of sectarianism. People turned on one another. I had been in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), where there were factions, but the arguments weren’t brutal in the way they were in 1969.

Some of us who were active in the 1960s had come of age in the 1950s, a time when people who had been radicals in the 1930s and 1940 turned on one another. We were both born in 1942, eleven months apart.

I remember McCarthyism. I also remember that my parents were anti-communists, my dad more than my mother. He was a social democrat and I liked his socialism. In 1960, when I was 18, I went to Cornell for college and joined a campaign to pressure the administration to accept black students. Then, two years later, in 1962, during the Missile Crisis, when people were critical of the Soviet Union for putting weapons in Cuba, I thought, “The U.S. has missiles in Turkey pointed at the Russians.”

Our missiles were supposedly good while the missiles they had were bad.

In 1968, I was very concerned about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. I marched with SDS against Soviet troops in Prague. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the aid the Russians were giving to the Vietnamese. I didn’t understand the role that the Soviet Union had played in history and I didn’t appreciate African Americans like W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson who were in the CP or close to it. In the 1960s, I saw the CP as a negative influence on revolutionary movements

You views have changed, haven’t they? In 2017, you published a long essay about the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Do you see the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a big blow to left movements around the world? Some old New Leftists are beginning to see that and say that.

You know, Jonah, it was a terrible blow. For decades, the Soviet Union provided real help to oppressed people.

How did you—a kid from Brooklyn and then Long Island—get into the thick of radical activities of the 1960s and 1970s?

I met people who were in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They came to the North and asked for help against Woolworth that discriminated against African Americans. One of the SNCC members asked us whites, “What are you going to do with your lives,” and added, “This isn’t just about a sandwich at a lunch counter. It’s about a civil rights revolution.” I thought that it would take a revolution for black people to have their rights. I believed in the Freedom-Rider-revolution and putting your body on the line. I thought that there would have to be a worldwide revolutionary movement to end racism and imperialism.

Like many others, including Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, you arrived at Columbia in 1968 in time for the student protests there.

After my time in CORE, I joined SDS. I believed then as I do now in mass organizing. I had worked in Harlem with the community and in Newark with Tom Hayden. In 1969, when people turned on one another, I called for a movement to oppose Progressive Labor (PL) and the ultra-leftists. I went to Boston, worked with Howard Zinn and helped to organize SDS there. In Zinn’s class, I talked to hundreds of students about SDS. We protested against ROTC.

Around this time there was the big split in SDS that many former SDS members have never forgotten or forgiven their ex-comrades. There was also the formation of Weatherman that led quickly to the Weather Underground.

I went to the 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago and didn’t support PL or the people who later formed Weatherman. I had been friends with Bill Ayres, Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn, but in Chicago I rejected their political line. I thought that they fetishized youth and militancy. I also argued that they couldn’t just expel Pl. I listened to Bernardine and Billy and I felt at the time, “This is no good.” Unlike them, I was not effective as a faction fighter or as a debater. I didn’t have the kind of will that Bernardine, Billy and Rudd had.

And then what do you do?

I went back to Boston depressed. SDS was finished. In the summer of 1969 I wasn’t in any organization, though I had almost always been an organization person, not a loner. Finally, I did join Weatherman and headed up the Boston Weatherman collective. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I was happy and I was not a victim.

You went to Flint, Michigan for what Weatherman called their “War Council.” It was their last big public appearance.

At Flint, I heard people talk about going underground. I had some conversations on that subject. I remember Bill Ayers said to me, “Eric, you’re too big and too visible to go underground.” If I had a choice of going underground or going to jail I would go to jail.

That’s exactly what you did do. Soon after you joined Weatherman, you were arrested at Harvard in a Weatherman-style action.

We didn’t do any organizing or leafleting. We didn’t build a base. We scoped out the Harvard Center for International Affairs ahead of time, and later stormed the place, spray painted the walls, overturned desks and shouted slogans such as “The Vietnamese are gonna win.” One of our guys was accused of assault. I didn’t assault anyone, but I would not plead “not guilty.” I organized the action. What was I thinking at the time? I don’t know. I was naïve. In court I was sentenced to two years in prison. That shocked the shit out of everyone including me. They put me in handcuffs, led me to a paddy wagon and then to a prison cell.

So you were the first person in Weatherman to do real time behind bars.

I had a positive experience in prison, though I was a Jewish kid from Long Island and over my head. The other prisoners looked out for me. They said, “We saw you on TV.  You were arrested for something you believed in.” Ultra-leftism was beaten out of me in prison. I went back to being a community organizer, only this time in prison. Soon after I got out, George Jackson was shot and killed and then right afterwards came the Attica uprising. I joined the Attica Defense Committee and became a journalist and wrote for The Bay Guardian, Boston After Dark and The Boston Globe. I was fired from the Globe for an article about Israel

When did the 1960s end for you?

Well, Jonah, the 1960s ended for me in 1974. I went into a deep personal crash about narcissism and ego. What helped me come out of it was working as a nurses’ aid, taking care of sick people, cleaning out bedpans. Later, I joined the August 29th Movement, so named because that was the date of the Chicano Moratorium that took place in 1970. The August 29 th Movement believed in going into factories. I worked in an automobile plant for ten years and learned again that a real revolution means working with people and talking about their lives. In the 1960s, I spent time in the South Bronx. Today I’m in the South Bronx again only it’s in L.A. this time, working with black and Latino students. We have a center for books and films and we’re setting up a health food store. I have a radio show on KPFK. I think that the left has a lot to offer today, if you don’t jump too far ahead and don’t think you’re anyone’s vanguard.

I’ve always though of you as a public intellectual.

No, that’s not me, Jonah. Like Tom Hayden and Howard Zinn, I’m a grassroots movement organizer. The people who influenced me were Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Moses. I’m a public organizer, not a public intellectual. My loyalty is to the black community. That’s at the core of my being. My life was shaped, from the age of 17 to the age of 25, by the civil rights movement. It still keeps me going. I have read Mao, Lenin and Marxism, and I have used them—not as dogma—but to help shape my anti-imperialism and my own life, too.