Unrepentant to the End: Louis Proyect ¡Presente!

After a muted, graceful battle with esophageal cancer, our friend, sometime correspondent, and frequently fierce critic Louis Proyect passed away on August 25th at 76. “Whatever you might call my condition, ‘tragic’ does not apply,” he averred last month in an email to close friends. “Having been an enemy of the capitalist system for 54 years has been the most fulfilling way to live. As my good friend Ernie Tate put it shortly before his death from cancer, opposing a rotten social system gave him intense pleasure. Same here.” It was in this spirit that we syndicated his graphic novel memoir earlier this summer. He was guarded and private about his illness, swearing us to secrecy in order to avoid being inundated with well-intended but still-bothersome epistles “wishing him well.” He leaves behind a beloved wife, Dr. Mine Aysen Doyran, and a cat, Boncuk, both of whom he gushed over frequently online.

I lost count years ago of the number of times he un-friended me on Facebook and ousted me from his beloved MarxMail email ListServ, and I imagine quite a few others can understand that sentiment. He knew how to write acidic polemics and indictments if you disagreed with him but, ironically, could be quite thin-skinned if you caught him at the right moment. And the times that I disagreed with him on topics were numerous. Call his lens on events “revolutionary optimism to the extreme,” I always thought he was over-determining the potential of spontaneous uprisings, seeing every protest and upsurge as some Bolshevik Revolution in the making, which he gleaned from the writings of C.L.R. James. This led us to heated exchanges about Syria and the 2020 George Floyd protests in upstate New York.

Yet despite these two minor quibbles, there was much more to admire.

* He had little patience for the strange Left-leaning Limbaugh Cro-magnons that engaged with a shallow, cynical, and nasty polemic against “identity politics” as a kind of catch-all excuse to smear Black/Brown/Indigenous and queer/trans/non-binary folk as mere liberals, a term of opprobrium in our milieu. As someone who is a member of a few of those groups and loves a few others in the rest, I always deeply admired that. So much of the Left has been polluted by such chauvinism and it is impossible to ignore. Louis certainly didn’t.

* He was a veritable catalog of radical history in the Northeast, including a ton of great gossip about prominent personages.

* He reinvigorated interest in a minor periodical, American Socialist, published by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union organization in the early 1950s. American Socialist had printed everyone from Paul Mattick, a Council Communist of the Libertarian Marxist tradition, to W.E.B. Du Bois, who had words of high praise for Stalin, to Michael Harrington, who was reared in the maniacally anticommunist milieu of Max Shachtman. This was a kind of broad church revolutionary politics that merits latae sententiae excommunication in most political circles these days. They had argued any viable radicalism in America needed to be ecumenical, abandon the costume pageantry of “Marxism-Leninism,” and be independent of the Democratic Party (nailing only two out of three was why Louis was never interested in the Democratic Socialists of America).

* He had great reverence for his upbringing in the Borscht Belt, a Jewish vacation spot in upstate New York, and sought to better understand its cultural intricacies.

* His MarxMail ListServ (the original form, which was erased in all likelihood by the Koch brothers, is archived here and latter iteration is open to join here) was a very helpful primary source archive for correspondence and information about debates, such as the minutiae of the American Green Party in 2000-06. This exemplified a long habit of using his professional skills as a computer programmer so to benefit movements, including IT support for Nicaragua and South Africa via the radical programming collective Tecnica.

* His amazing film criticism at Counterpunch brought forward pictures that were of tremendous value and should be given further examination.

* And the self-consciousness about his days as a young man in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party made him instinctively skeptical of various nutbar Munchkin cults that popped up over the past few decades, regardless of their political dogma.

His desire was to help midwife the birth of a new socialist movement that was unencumbered by historic baggage like anti-intellectual, obsequent reverence for some Great Socialist Motherland, the Perpetual Popular Front with the Democrats, a litany of saints and martyrs to be reified in hymnals by crackpot gurus, and morally-bankrupt dismissals of humanitarian grievances perpetrated by statesmen who incidentally gained the ire of the Pentagon. This reflected a lesson of American history transmitted by his mentor Peter Camejo: radicals are going to need to rely on traditions and lessons from indigenous predecessors like the Abolitionists, the Debs-era Socialists, and the Industrial Workers of the World, aka “the Wobblies,” rather than mentorship dispatches from Moscow or <FILL IN THE BLANK>.

His philosophical and strategic vision was rather simple: During its high-watermark, the Debsian Socialists and, a few years later, the early Communists, active during the 1890s-1920s, held an ideological spectrum that included everyone from mainstream social democrats, who worked hard to get early municipal infrastructure built whilst earning the derisive nickname “Sewer Socialists,” to the anarcho-syndicalist Wobblies, who scorned electoral politics totally. Foreign Language Leagues, which could be equated with identity caucuses and were made up of recent immigrants to the US, built subcultures in urban centers that included newspapers, mutual aid and beneficent fund organizations, and social event hubs that fostered a meaningful, viable network of activism. It was not that Louis saw the Russian Revolution as a mistake, far from it. Instead, he pinpointed the failure on the 1924 “Bolshevization” order from Moscow, which had imposed the sclerotic, formulaic mandates of “Marxism-Leninism” onto radicals. Out went the Foreign Language Leagues and the ideological heterogeneity, in came the cargo cult theatrics adorned with hammers and sickles, the dogmatism, and theology-as-politics, with every attendant intellectual and moral contradiction that one also finds in the histories of major religions. Bolshevism, like its contemporary, the Debsian party, had incubated healthy debate and intellectual inquiry. But Bolshevization, like all Papal interdicts, smothered those basic habits of a movement claiming to be predicated upon the thoughts of a man whose lifelong motto was De omnibus dubitandum <of all things be doubtful>.

Proyect wanted to burn that detritus off so, phoenix-like, the radical movement could rise from the ashes. In this spirit, first Camejo and then Louis created a forum, The North Star, that was named for Frederick Douglass’s popular antebellum broadsheet. Louis valorized critical thinking and analysis above all else, even if it led to points of massive disagreement with contemporaries, including myself.

I can hear him screaming bloody murder for my selection of this video, he’d be in paroxysms if he knew that his name was being linked to a Marvel superhero film. But that was part of the fun with Louis. I once joked with a mutual acquaintance that MarxMail and Louis were like an infamous dose of LSD that reaches legendary proportions. He was quite a trip and I was lucky to have known him.

Louis, I will see you in the stars.

This piece first appeared on Washington Babylon.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.