As I was reading through You Say You Want a Revolution: SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance for a review in last week’s CounterPunch, I kept emailing co-author John Levin about my connections to a number of the 23 mini-memoir contributors to this essential volume. It got to the point when John asked me jocularly if I was a member of the Progressive Labor Party rather than the Socialist Workers Party.
Well, not exactly, but my fifty-two-year career on the left has brought me into contact with Maoists (and eventually ex-Maoists) on numerous occasions. As such, I thought it would be worth CounterPunch readers’ time to join me in a trip down memory lane to learn about our generation’s mostly misspent youth and subsequent attempts over the long haul to build a stronger left.
In late 1966, when I was a graduate student in philosophy at the New School and radicalizing as a result of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty with my own eyes as a welfare caseworker in Harlem, I began to consider joining a revolutionary organization. As it happened, the Socialist Workers Party made the most sense to me since it was spearheading the mass antiwar demonstrations. I had been involved in long discussions with and moving closer politically to an SWP member and fellow philosophy student named Arthur Maglin even though I was initially put off by his description of himself as a Marxist-Leninist. For me, that was as outlandish as someone calling himself a Seventh Day Adventist. Although the SWP had the inside track, I was also open to the Progressive Labor Party since Victor Marrow, a Bard College classmate and fellow New School philosophy student, was a sympathizer. When Victor told me that I’d get a lot out of a talk on socialist revolution at PL leader Jake Rosen’s apartment, I said why not. Back then, the only thing that sounded outlandish to me besides Seventh Day Adventism was liberal acceptance of the status quo.
I have vivid recollections of the evening I spent in Jake’s living room. There were about 6 or 7 of us sitting around Jake who wore blue jeans and a t-shirt. The clothes were meant to remind us that he was a construction worker. Back then, construction workers tended to be arch-reactionaries so it was a novelty to see one who was a communist. He stretched recumbently on his sofa like Goya’s Naked Maja and picked the lint from between the toes of his bare feet, while he delivered a lecture on the need for a dictatorship of the proletariat. I was not impressed. I had come to the meeting with doubts about Stalinism to begin with and Jake’s performance art did not help.
In early 1970, just about 3 years after this experience, I was a member of the SWP and growing weary of membership even though I was politically committed to Trotskyism. Most of the members my age reminded me of student government types on the hustle and I didn’t fit in, especially since I had begun working as a computer programmer and came to meetings frequently dressed in a business suit. I set up a meeting with the branch organizer Charles Bolduc (who, according to rumor, became an alcoholic living on skid row after leaving the party) in order to tell him that I was resigning. Instead, he convinced me to stay since my political skills, which meant understanding Trotskyism, were needed up in Boston. I was told that around half the branch was tailing after Progressive Labor. Since Peter Camejo was the branch organizer and leading the attack on the pro-PL comrades, I decided to give it a try since I admired Peter much more than any other party leaders.
Peter’s goal was to draw young comrades away from PL and the SDS Worker-Student Alliance. Instead of building the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), they had gotten jobs in hospitals alongside PL and were trying to help unionize the workers. John Barzman, the son of blacklisted screenwriters, was the leader of the Boston contingent and a disciple of Larry Trainor, an older party leader and printing trades retiree who disdained the student movement as “petty-bourgeois”.
Peter, whose polemical skills were second to none, succeeded in weaning most of the Barzman group away from “workerism” and helping to put the SMC into the driver’s seat politically in Boston. One thing I learned from Levin and co-author Earl Silbar’s book is that even SDS WSA members were unhappy with their abstention from the Vietnam antiwar movement. At the time, Eric Gordon agreed with SDS’s opposition to the “pacifist” protests but in his mini-memoir admits:
In that sense we separated ourselves from the pacifists, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and liberal Democrats. At the time I must have agreed with this line, but I disagree with it now The immediate demand on the front burner was to end the war, and for that any and all sectors of the population that could be mobilized to march, protest, write letters, etc., should be engaged even if not all reciting the same radical catechism. Signs of our fatal sectarianism in SDS could be seen already.
The SDS-WSA was strongest at Harvard University, which might have seemed like the last place pro-working class activists were to be found. As was the case in most ivies, some students saw radicalism as both a necessary political act as well as a way to differentiate themselves from their country-club parents. SDS was led by PLP members John Pennington and Jared Israel who were not only contending with their adversaries in SDS like Mark Rudd but facing a loss of influence in Boston because of the dreaded Trots. They were not ready to take this lying down and began a series of violent attacks on antiwar rallies and meetings. Writing for The Militant, Tony Thomas pointed out that “PLP’s support of physical attacks and disruption within the movement flows from its admitted and open adherence to the methods of Stalin.” This is the same Tony Thomas who would be expelled from the SWP for beating up his girlfriend a decade or so later.
I resigned from the SWP in late 1978 with the intention of writing the great American novel. Within a year or so, I figured out that I wasn’t even capable of writing a mediocre novel and relapsed back into radical politics, mostly in agreement with Peter Camejo that a new, non-sectarian approach was necessary (one that I might add is being considered by ISO members now that their organization is going through a deep crisis.) I joined the North Star Network that Peter saw as a vehicle for regrouping ex-Leninists across the board, including ex-PLers. One of them was Steve Hiatt, a FB friend today and back then a member of the Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee (BASOC) that joined the North Star. I can’t say if Steve was a former PLer but he was the copy-editor and “book designer extraordinaire” of “You Say You Want a Revolution”, according to the acknowledgments. He also copy-edited Peter Camejo’s memoir titled “North Star”. He certainly has a nose for important memoirs on the left.
Peter’s North Star Network had a short shelf-life, but the Central American revolution that inspired its formation persisted through the 1980s. I joined the Committee in Solidarity With El Salvador on his advice and met a number of people who were either ex-SWPers like me or former Maoists. For those trying to align with a non-sectarian but revolutionary left, the FMLN and the FSLN were poles of attraction.
In 1984, I was part of a Guardian (the radical American newsweekly) delegation to observe the Nicaraguan presidential elections. While on my way to a coffee cooperative, a young man handed me a leaflet produced by a group called TecNica that was looking for computer programmers to work in Nicaragua. To make a long story short, I signed up and went on a delegation a year or so later with the intention of working for a government agency. But Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of TecNica, persuaded me that I would be of more use staying in the USA and recruiting others to volunteer in Nicaragua.
On a trip out to Berkeley to discuss strategy for building TecNica, Michael revealed to me that he had been in Progressive Labor and had quit for the same reason I had quit the SWP. Working in a warehouse and preaching socialism to fellow workers was not making much headway. I drew the same conclusion as a spot welder in Kansas City in 1978 but it only took a single morning to come to it. After leaving PL, Michael got a Ph.D. in economics and began teaching at the U. of Utah, a stronghold of leftism ironically (it is where the Marxism mailing list is based.) He also opened a movie theater in Salt Lake City that featured the kinds of films I review for CounterPunch. Like all the people included in “You Say You Want a Revolution”, he found ways to oppose the capitalist beast even if our dreams of revolution in the 60s were unfounded.
In February 1998, the war in Kosovo began. Three months later, I launched the Marxism list because the list that preceded it had been hijacked by Maoists. In this go-round, it had nothing to do with PL, which existed back then and even today (but in total obscurity). Instead, we were dealing with supporters of the Shining Path in Peru, including a Peruvian living in exile in England named Adolfo Olaechea. These were old-school Maoists who had little sympathy for China. They were convinced that the Shining Path could not only lead a revolution in Peru but use it as a catapult to overturn capitalism throughout Latin America. In their fevered imagination, they saw the Marxism mailing list as a battleground to defeat Trotskyism as if it were a serpent’s nest filled with traitors.
Adolfo, the son of Peruvian landed gentry, was the chairman of the Stalin Society in London and a master of invective:
Today’s social-fascists are the direct descendants of the Menshevik social-chauvinists who led the working masses into the butchery of the First Imperialist War, who later PAVED the way for FASCISM and nurtured and provided “intellectual muscle” for Mussolini’s anti-bolshevik “Fascios die Combattimento”, the same “white-gloved butchers” who showed Hitler and his brown shirts the road and methods for assassinating the working masses and the proletarian leaders by means of the Social Democrat revisionist “Frei-Korps” organised by the social-fascist regime of Ebert in Germany. It is perfectly clear that today’s social fascist regimes such as Castro’s and Jian Zemin, also preach – and moreover, enforce by fascist repression – CLASS PEACE, and, likewise, they also “preach war” on the revolutionary people abroad. In practice too, like in the case of Peru, these renegades contribute directly to the imperialist counter-revolutionary war aimed against the Communist Party of Peru.
All in all, Adolfo seemed like a character out of a Godard film and could be quite amusing. However, it was not so amusing to have to deal with him and a dozen other such ideologues on a mailing list. Twenty-five years later, I ran into Adolfo as a FB friend and—as such—was willing to put up with his histrionics. After all, that is what FB is good for, besides cat videos. Unfortunately, he died of pancreatic cancer a year after our reunion. Despite everything, I have fond memories of the fanatic. It would have been a lot easier for him to inherit his father’s plantation and ride around on a horse as he did when he was young. He rejected his class background, to his everlasting credit. I should add that the Shining Path was not as great as he thought it was but not so nearly as bad as NACLA et al thought it was, as I tried to point out here.
Understandably, the new Marxism list had to reckon with the war in Kosovo that had divided the left in much the same way that Syria and Ukraine divide it today. Back then, I was an ardent defender of the Serbs but mostly on the basis of opposition to NATO. I had no problem viewing the Serb militias in Bosnia as reactionary warlords but could not agree that Milosevic was anything like Assad, for example. Assad would kill anybody who tried to create an opposition party in Syria while Milosevic stepped down when he lost an election, one that was jury-rigged just like the election that unseated Daniel Ortega in 1990, for that matter.
Because of my stance on Yugoslavia, I soon was approached by Jared Israel to give him some technical and political advice on how to defend the Serbs. This was the same PL’er who had led the assault on antiwar rallies and meetings in Boston 28 years earlier. Unlike most former PL’ers I ran into like Michael Urmann, Jared retained the zeal of his youth but on behalf of Serbia rather than Maoist China. Slobodan Milosevic became a symbol of untainted revolutionary principles. For Jared, even the slightest criticism would produce the kind of invective Adolfo was capable of.
There was always an element of Islamophobia in Jared’s Emperor’s Clothes website. He was always looking for the presence of al-Qaeda in the Balkan wars that ironically mirrored the sort of thing you hear from Grayzone or Consortium News today.
In 2001, Jared jumped the shark. For him, the WTC/Pentagon attack was a “inside job” hatched by the CIA and Saudi Arabia, two entities that somehow joined hands in killing thousands of Americans in the interests of Sunni extremism worldwide. He also became a supporter of Putin’s war on the Chechens who were demonized as jihadists that had to be stopped at all costs. Next in his bizarre evolution was total support for the Likud Party in Israel that was supposedly defending the Jews against terrorists based in Gaza and the West Bank. After these volcanic outbursts in the 1990s, Jared went into a second retirement from politics, thus saving himself and the rest of us the trouble of keeping track of his gyrations.
So, what does this all add up to? It is hard to generalize but it is safe to say that the kind of hard-edged “Leninism” of the 1960s and 70s has run its course. There are all sorts of Maoist groups showing up on Instagram and Facebook but they tend to have little life outside of the Internet and the same gravity as Xbox games.
As for me, I retain a great deal of respect for Leon Trotsky as a political analyst but would advise young people today against starting a new Fourth International. To paraphrase what Jeeves told Bertie Wooster about Nietzsche: “You would not enjoy Trotskyism, sir. It is fundamentally unsound.”