Began the day early with coffee and continuing Curtis Mayfield. A perfect countersoundtrack to accompany reading the news of the day. Kobane, Hillary, Ebola. Some days it’s only Curtis Mayfield.
Began the day early with coffee and continuing Curtis Mayfield. A perfect countersoundtrack to accompany reading the news of the day. Kobane, Hillary, Ebola. Some days it’s only Curtis Mayfield.
It has been nearly ten years since the passing of legendary Irish republican and socialist, George Harrison in December, 2004. In October of that year, just two months before his death, I and a comrade visited George in his Prospect Park apartment for a lengthy interview. I had been in contact with George for some time trying to get the trip together to New York City for the discussion. Those phone calls set the basis for the recording we did that day.
George was an immensely humble and decent man, belying all the media images of an IRA gun runner. Immediately at ease as we had cake and coffee served to us, the 89 year-old gave us recollections of a long life well lived in a room full of manifestations of those memories. Pictures of hunger strikers, of Bernadette McAliskey and her children hung on the wall, posters and papers from the movement were on the tables. His nurse and friend Prissy was there, along with her daughter, and it is Prissy’s voice you will hear at the very end of the interviews describing the beautiful relationship the two of them had and his impact on her.
In this lengthy interview George talks about his early memories of the Republican movement in Ireland, his friends and comrades in the IRA who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Connolly Column, racism in Irish-America, Mike Quill and the Transport Workers Union, the Cuban Revolution, the peace process and much, much more.
It was an honor to get to know George a little in the last period of his life and talk with him at length. I disagreed with George on all kinds of things, but had deep respect for him. He was a worker, a union member, and saw the world from that point of view. He was true to his calling all of his many years and stuck doggedly and unashamedly to the side of the oppressed and the working class.
I respected most his willingness to buck much of Irish America and support gays and lesbians, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and Fidel Castro. He was a person of principle, and yet without the slightest hint of self-righteousness. A partisan of the left who had a long friendship with the Irish and US Communist Parties, George was also an unrepetent Irish republican, and Patron of Republican Sinn Fein. A republican and an internationalist who lived through some of the crucibles of the 20th century.
Unedited, the interview is missing the first few moments and hasn’t been public before, largely because I am horrified by the sound of my own voice. So here then, for posterity, is one of the last interviews of the old man who had seen, and quietly done, so much.
This time of year days get noticeably shorter, darkness comes earlier every evening. I don’t know if it is a mood or the season, but a kind of darkness defined by a lack of hope, a lack of a dawn, seems to be descending across much of the world of late, or at least how I’m thinking of it.
Maybe this mood or this season is coloring my thoughts, no doubt it is, but I have lived though every winter in the firm knowledge that spring would come. And last winter was the worst winter on record in these parts. I see no justification for that conviction in the face of the various ruling class storm fronts roiling overhead.
If you are at all interested in an emancipatory project, things are remarkably bad. For this socialist, whose world view shaped in the last century, fourteen years in is a little early to be calling ‘midnight’ on the 21st century, but Victor Serge could have written a poem about Tahrir that sounded an awful lot like the ones he wrote on Madrid. This makes one shudder to think how things might go a whole lot worse in the coming decades if course is not dramatically reversed.
I’m not doom saying, I’m just saying trends don’t point in directions I want to live in. If midnight is not assured, neither is dawn and that is a frightening way to live. Indeed, it is no way to live.
I suppose it has always been that way for those at the receiving end of the logic of capital’s growth and accumulation, but unlike so many past crises there seems so little to root for, even in defeat, these days.
I’m thinking (to mention a few) of the conflagration now taking place in an arc from the Mediterranean well past Persian Gulf into the mountains of the Hindu Kush, of the rising waters of ecological catastrophe and the continued barbarism of neo-liberalism’s dismantling of anything left standing without a price affixed and reassembling it as a derivative. It’s now all derivative, from Beyoncé’s feminism to the community of “social entrepreneurs” that make up so much of what passes for the progressive party these days.
I live in a place where every school district is being charterized and the last memory of the UAW has sold the last cabin up north that a working class person used to be able to afford. Where gardening and making (and selling) your own soap passes for social activism for too many who have now grown up in a world without strikes and without ever seeing your neighbor on a picket line. As someone said some other bad time – ‘things weren’t any before, but they are worse now.”
Of course things aren’t all terrible. Everywhere there this is or that struggle, some of them remarkable and redefining the way we might think about approaching the situation. Some spaces are opening up and it is obvious that whatever deep vein Occupy touched is pulsing in other places. Latin America has and continues to buck some of the trends. But it seems to me that in a world chiefly characterized by the ruling class’s mad avarice and the state and international institutions they operate through not being able to solve, and or even contain, certain crisis (mainly caused by said mad avarice), then the only way to respond, to land blows on that class, is for a some kind of class response.
This is a class society. The enemy, the 1%, are organized as a class in the interests of their class. Even with all kinds of conflicts between and within them, they have common agreement that it is their class which should remain on top. To challenge them at all, we have to do it on the basis of class. After all, it’s not only is it how they they think and how they operate, it’s how they work.
That response is, so far, entirely lacking in this moment and in such marked difference to many of capitalism’s past impasses. There will be no collapse; capitalism has been remarkable in defraying the costs of its own logic over the years. Despite what some on the right may say, the really big debt crises seem easily overcome at least. Capitalism can get out of most problems, if it can force someone else to pay for them. But it will mean further descent into the mire, the fire and the plastic-filled waves of a surging sea and that is plenty bad enough.
The 80s sucked, those years weren’t any better, but now, without an occupied union hall on the landscape and the hard-won power torn from black cities, it is worse. Or, at least it is entirely out of my communist comfort-level. Saying all that, historic developments have almost always defied the preconceptions of what I thought was possible. That’s the way history works, it is always as unexpected in its course as we were once sure.
It’s no use running to the mountains, they have the drones. I am ready, however, to push back on that tsunami of detritus that capital’s earthquakes are pushing on to shore. But it will have to be together, as a class, and it will have to be welding and struggling for power and with something far more than the creative power of the local DIY festival, or we are all assuredly swamped.
Where is that power? How do we pick it up? How do we strike a blow? We have to strike a blow. There’s no shame in going down, far better than us have gone down before, but to go down without fight?
I am reminded of Serge’s passage in The Birth of Our Power:
‘Very likely Dario, at the end of all this trouble we will be shot. I have doubts about today and about ourselves. You would laugh, Dario, if I told you this aloud. You would say, stretching out your great, shaggy, brotherly, strong hands: “Me, I feel able to win all the way. All the way.” That is how we all feel, immortal, right up to the moment when we feel nothing anymore. And life goes on after our little drop of water has flowed back into the ocean. In this sense my confidence is as one with yours. Tomorrow is great. We will not have prepared this conquest in vain. This city will be taken, if not by our hands, at least by others like ours, but stronger. Stronger perhaps by having been better hardened, thanks to our very weakness. If we are beaten, other men, infinitely different from us, infinitely like us, will walk, on a similar evening, in ten years, in twenty years (how long is really without importance) down this rambla, meditating on the same victory. Perhaps they will think about our blood. Even now I think I see them and I am thinking about their blood, which will flow too. But they will win the city.’
If we do not strike that blow, will there still be others like us, after us, carrying our memory and ready to go ‘all the way?”
Mark Twain wrote that Americans go to war to learn geography. But that can’t be right; we’ve had enough wars in enough places that Americans ought to know the capital city of even the smallest province of Nicaragua by now, and yet most Americans couldn’t tell you on which border Mexico or Canada reside – and we’ve been to war with both of them.
I learned geography, in part, as a political and anti-war activist. The room we used for meetings back in the day was plastered with maps, not surprisingly, of the Middle East. Before Iraq War I, there was the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf (remember that?) and that’s probably the first time I had the occasion to learn a little, and I mean a little, about Oman.
Well here we are again. Another war; this time Iraq War III, or is it V? It’s getting hard to keep count.
Last week we talked with Brad Duncan of the RF Kampfer Revolutionary Literature Archive in the first of a two-part interview (here), next week we’ll post part two. In the mean time here is a collection from the archive of items connected to the Middle East, including a number on Palestine and the revolutionary upsurges in Iran of the 1970s.
Learn your geography in solidarity comrades!
The Rustbelt Radical has been around since 2008, with a couple of years of slower activity. I never set out to promote the blog or have ambitions other than to have a place to occasionally write, communicate, rant or share. Even though the blog has been dormant off and on, I am proud of the well over 500 posts that I have produced. I am not proud of each post; of course, many – most – weren’t my best. But some of them I am quite proud of. Coincidentally, many of those I am most proud of are also those that have been most popular on the blog over the years.
On the occasion of getting 250,000 hits (admittedly small potatoes), and returning from a longish absence, I thought I would share the top posts, in order of popularity, on the Rustbelt over the years with readers. I hope comrades will indulge me. I am omitting some of that were simply announcements, or photo spreads or the rebroadcast of talks and the like.
Since I have done a bunch of different types of posts, I thought I’d divide it into those that I have written entirely (or mainly) and those that are mostly an introduction by me to a text I find important or intriguing from an author, usually from Marxism’s classical canon. Many of these I have sought to ‘repackage’ with images, videos and other additions at moments when I thought debates in the world or the left warranted a rereading these old contributions. A few, like the one on Marx and Engels’ drinking habits and the Red 48ers are original; assembling different old texts together for the first time to tell a story.
Why some are popular and others not is mostly a mystery to me. I have a feeling a good number of the posts of classical authors, like Marx on the Civil War, were found in the process of undergrads writing papers. Others like the one from Connolly, because they continue to strike a chord and remain touchstones for the present. Others, that I thought were my very best, came nowhere near the top popular posts, which was a little disconcerting. Perhaps I’ll do my personal favorites at another time.
So here are the top pieces posted on the Rustbelt that come from other authors, sometimes for the first time on the internet and often introduced or assembled by me, that I have tried to present in ways that underline why I think them important.Click on any link to open the original.
The second most popular post on the blog. In this I present Marx’s October, 1861 overview of the landscape at the beginning of the Civil War. Marx brilliantly looks at the debates over slavery’s expansion and the slave power’s economic and political control. A must read for all students of the period or of the US in general.
“The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question. Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated outright or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should submit any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be nurseries for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed spreading of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.”
I am glad that this post became so widely read (though its appeal is a bit of a mystery), I transcribed for the first time on the internet a report from a December 2, 1859 memorial service in Detroit’s black Second Baptist church for the martyred John Brown led by the indomitable William Lambert.
‘Resolved, That, as the long-lost rights and liberties of an oppressed people are only gained in proportion as they act in their own cause, therefore are now loudly called upon to arouse to our own interest, and to concentrate our efforts in keeping the Old Brown Liberty-ball in motion and thereby continue to kindle the fires of liberty upon the altar of every determined heart among men and continue to fan the same until the proper time, when a revolutionary blast from liberty’s trump shall summon them simultaneously to unite for victorious and triumphant battle.’
This is one of my personal favorites. This post is a collection of a host of references from the letters of the Marx-Engels clan to their love of the good life and its accompanying wine, beer and spirits. Throughout their lives the Marx and Engels families enjoyed the company of family, friends and comrades which invariably meant sharing drinks over long discussions. Whether pub crawls or Christmas cheer, the value Marx and Engels placed on their social lives and the drinks they held up in toast is found in abundant detail in their letters.
“Dear Mr. Engels,
How can you imagine that I would have been angry with you over that little drinking spree? I was very sorry not to have seen you again before you left, for that would have enabled you to see for yourself that I was only somewhat sulky in respect of my liege lord. Besides, such interludes often have quite salutary effects, but this time père Marx must have caught a bad chill during his nocturnal philosophic excursion with ‘the archbishop’s nephew’ [i.e. Engels], for he fell seriously ill and has up till now stayed quietly in bed.
Jenny Marx, 31 July 1857″
Here is presented a truly classic debate: Dave Dellinger and Isaac Deutscher debating violence, pacifism and their world views during the May, 1966 Vietnam Day teach-in at Berkeley. Both Deutscher and Dellinger are illuminating, Deutscher particularly is someone who’s “Marxism is true to itself” in ways that remain refreshing decades after his passing. I am pleased that this post has become one of the most popular on the Rustbelt; it deserves to be read, contemplated and discussed still. I write a lengthy introduction of my take on the question of violence.
By the way, somewhere out there is an audio record of this event. To hear Deutscher’s voice (and Dellinger) in this debate is a real treat
“The fact that the new society we wish to create will be resolutely non-violent, because it aims to be classless, does not change our present situation. Where we are now, power; the control of our own collective and individual destinies, is decided by force and only if we abstain from the question of power would we be able to abstain from violence, from force. And still violence would continue to exist. And still all would yearn for peace.”
This is a long talk given by Douglass at Harper’s Ferry from 1881 on Brown and his companions. I posted it on the 150th anniversary of Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry. Throughout the piece I present photos of each of Brown’s comrades who fought with him that day and their fate. Again, probably so popular as a reference for school projects, but if you are going to write a paper for US History 123, why not include this marvelous speech.
Douglass at his most explanatory and eloquent here; fearless and expansive with truth even in his advancing age.
“Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand.”
Cannon was always at his considerable best when he was, in the Kansas drawl of his, giving popular talks on the nature of American capitalism or the role of power in society. It comes from his years as a stump speaker for the IWW and other union struggles. In my mind, Cannon was a far better popular than party leader; and he helped to keep alive many of the emancipatory and democratic notions of classical Marxism in the face of their often violent negation in the 20th century.
This talk from 1957, given in the aftermath of McCarthyism and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, looks at the attitude of workers and the left to ‘democracy under capitalism’ and the combined role of the democratic and for socialist struggle.
“In the old days, the agitators of the Socialist Party and the IWW—who were real democrats—used to give a shorthand definition of socialism as “industrial democracy”. I don’t know how many of you have heard that. It was a common expression: “industrial democracy”, the extension of democracy to industry, the democratic control of industry by the workers themselves, with private ownership eliminated. That socialist demand for real democracy was taken for granted in the time of Debs and Haywood, when the American socialist movement was still young and uncorrupted.”
For some reason I don’t quite understand, probably because of my age, a certain generation of leftists decided that the problems beset by Marxism throughout the 20th century; dogmatism, crude materialism, euro-centrism, schematicism, sectarianism, even sexism and bureaucracy could be placed at the feet of Marx’s lessor. What crap. Engels, with any number of faults admitted, was a truly estimable guardian and exponent of the collaborative work he and his friend (the word seems so inadequate when describing their relationship) did. More than Marx, Engels is responsible for the acceptance of many of Marx’s ideas. And he did so with a personality equally determined and playful; a true bon vivant without a hint of the dilettante.
Here, the husband of Marx’s daughter Laura, Paul Lafargue recollects the character of Engels and his role in the workers movement on the occasion of a decade passing since Engels’ death in 1905. It is impossible for me not to love the General, as many who were in his circle did with exuberance.
“Engels was friendly with the whole family; the daughters of Marx looked upon Engels as their second father, and his friendship lasted beyond the grave. After Marx’s death it was his duty to look through his manuscripts and to prepare for the press his unpublished works. Engels put on one side all that he had prepared relating to his universal philosophy of knowledge, at which he had been working for more than ten years, and for which he had made a survey of all sciences and their latest progress in order to devote himself to the preparation of the two last volumes of “Capital.”
An absolutely bbrilliant socialist, working class and internationalist take down, by simply recounting historic facts of Protestant history, of Orange reaction in the north of Ireland on the occasional of the triumphalism July 12 marches of the Orange Order from a the Forward, 12 July, 1913 issue of Forward. Honestly, this article could read at every year’s marching season in Ireland.
“The reader should remember what is generally slurred over in narrating this part of Irish history, that when we are told that Ulster was planted by Scottish Presbyterians, it does not mean that the land was given to them. On the contrary, the vital fact was, and is, that the land was given to the English noblemen and to certain London companies of merchants who had lent money to the Crown, and that the Scottish planters were only introduced as tenants of these landlords. The condition of their tenancy virtually was that they should keep Ireland for the English Crown, and till the land of Ireland for the benefit of the English landlord.”
Another personal favorite that I am glad to see has found an audience. A good friend of mine, knowing I am a bit of an Engelphile (not to be confused with Anglophile), gave me a gift of a huge International Publishers photo book on the life of Engels. Yes, it suffers a little from the Sovietisms about the chiseled teacher of the proletarian, but it is full of visuals accompanying the life of the great thinker, educator, revolutionary and Mensch. I used the book as a springboard to showcase some of those Red 48ers, friends of Marx and Engels who shook the world of mid-19th century Europe.
These comrades of Marx and Engels are infinitely interesting in their own right and entirely recognizable as people for anyone who has spent time in the left. Taking the words of Marx and Engels as a basis, I reconstructed their appreciation for and the contributions of these progenitors of our movement.
“Engels on Johann Becker: ‘Becker was a man of rare character. A single word gives a complete description of him; that word is healthy: he was healthy in both body and mind to the very last. A handsome man of powerful build and tremendous physical strength, thanks to his happy disposition and healthy activity he developed his unschooled but in no way uncultured mind just as harmoniously as his body. He was one of the few men who need only follow their own natural instincts to go the right way. This is why it was so easy for him to keep step with each development of the revolutionary movement and to stand just as keenly in the front ranks in his seventy-eighth year as in his eighteenth… Nor was he a gloomy, high-principled ignoramus like the majority of “serious” republicans of 1848, but a true son of the cheerful Pfalz, a man with a zest for life who loved wine, women and song like anyone…he appeared even in his latter years like a character from our old epic poem: cheerfully and mockingly hailing the enemy between sword thrusts and composing folk songs when there was nothing to hit — thus and only thus must he have appeared, Volker the Fiddler!’”
On the occasion of the mass student revolt against the introduction of new fees by England’s Tory-led government in 2010, I was brought to think of another young rebel who spoke of a rising multitude; Percy Bysshe Shelley. I could so easily have imagine Shelley in the throng of London youth that day and it brought me to Paul Foot’s marvelous 1992 essay on Red Shelley. Foot was an exceptional radical journalist, historian (in his way) and cultural commentator. Nowhere is this more evident than in his entitled Poetry of Protest. A talk by Foot on Shelley is a pleasure and thankfully can be listened to on the internet.
“Seven bloodhounds, the seven countries which signed the Treaty of Vienna which carved up Europe after the counter-revolutionary victory of Waterloo, follow him, fed by their master with human hearts. One by one they glide past ‘in this ghastly masquerade
All disguised, even to the eyes/As bishops, lawyers, peers and spies.’
Shelley hated them all. They represented the chaos of the hideous class society of the time. This Chaos comes last in the parade, ‘on a white horse, splashed with blood.’ He is Anarchy. In more recent times anarchy has come to be used as a word of the left. But in Shelley’s day the word had no such progressive meaning. It meant horror, chaos, violence. To Shelley it meant what the poem says is written on the brow of the ghastly skeletal figure on the white horse: ‘I am God and King and Law.”
Here are the original pieces written entirely, or mainly, by me that have been popular on the blog in order of number of hits.
By a long shot, the most popular post on the Rustbelt in any class. Easily the most shared and read post on the blog; which, incidentally, says nothing about the writing and everything about cats on the internet.
Written quickly and without any thought before I went to work one morning, this is a short, light attempt at some humor on Mark Twain, Cats and Communism. In the article I make the dubiously and unfounded assertion that Maoists like dogs and Trotskyists like cats. Taking Mark Twain as an inspiration, I point to Lenin’s fondness of feline companions both as his immense humanity and a sign of his humility; no one exercises power over a cat.
“What is indisputable is that Lenin was a fan of the pussy cat and both Trotskyists and Maoists claim Lenin as their own. It is also indisputable that Lenin rejected the Democratic Dictatorship for the Proletarian one. His appreciation of cats, while this is not proven, may have helped him to this conclusion. During his final convalescence a little purr ball was often curled up on his lap, giving him great comfort, we are sure, even as both his life and the Proletarian Dictatorship slipped away (Stalin, I am confident, was a dog man).”
I am entirely unschooled in writing, I read a lot and if I have learned anything it is from that. The last thing I would think of is somebody who could or would write humor. I have two kinds of humor, to be reductionist about it, that I like; brutal social satire à la Dr. Strangelove or sketch comedy (not sit-coms) that often descend into slapstick, I’m thinking the Carol Burnett show. Most comrades would probably not define me as overly humorous; though in elementary school Mrs. Norris thought I would end up on Saturday Night Live. She was wrong. In any case, comedy, if not humor, is out of my comfort zone and to see the two most popular things I have written being the most absurd strikes me as, well, absurd.
I wrote these eight ways that we poor might weather the Great Recession when the floodgates opened in the fall of 2008.
“Second- If you can’t live without booze, coffee or herb (and we all need whatever little pleasure we can get these days) try giving up one of your other addictions. Like washing your clothes. It may be harder to get a date, but there will be a few extra quarters in your pocket at the end of the week. And what does a 40 of Steel Reserve cost these days anyway? One round with the dryer given up and you’ll be singing sweet malted songs. Needless to say if you smoke you’ll need to give that up. Or alternatively you can hang around the art school. They always stub the best butts there. You are guaranteed to find American Spirits or some clove cigarettes. The only problem is the possibility of black lipstick smudging the end. Sacrifices comrades, we all have to make them (well not all of us).”
Another short piece I am proud of, written on the 120th anniversary of the massacre of Miniconjou, Hunkpapa and Lakota Sioux in 1890 at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I try and place the closing of the west and the end of independent Indian polities with the final victory of the capitalist transformation of the land itself. At least that was my intention.
“What would justice, genuine justice, be to the native peoples of this continent? From my perspective as the descendant of some of those settlers and citizen of the state that now strides this land whose birthright was dependent on the historic denial of another’s, the only justice possible is a death sentence on the Empire, whose epitaph will surely contain the words ‘Wounded Knee’, as well as a restoration of collective ownership. An irrevocable removal of those fences, those divisions that the geometry of capitalist expansion knifed into a blood-stained earth.”
Tahir Square will ever be a part of the lexicon of struggle and of hope; no matter the current terrible, and in some ways too predictable reversals that have befallen those headiest of days. Written in the first week of February, 2011, in the midst of great violence in the defense of the liberated square and a week before the fall of Mubarak, I found the spiritual resemblance to the Communards of Paris, 1871 undeniable and write this short piece, both exalting the promise of the revolution and frightened at its achievements while still in its infancy.
“This slogan was wheat pasted all over the Left Bank in those heady days of Paris, May 68. Those moments with millions on the street, a revolution in the air and when everything seemed possible. That slogan was:
Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.
Those who make revolutions half way only dig their own graves.
The revolution in ’68 touched the halfway mark, perhaps. But no further. There are many kinds of graves in life, and in the life of politics even more. The graves waiting for the Cairo Communards are much different from the ones faced by France’s failed 68ers. Another generation in the darkness. Or compromises, made in the midst of great possibility, that damn the task to another revolution to another generation.
Long Live The Egyptian Revolution! Forward!”
Another piece more humorous than serious, but entirely based on fact so though it may read like a satire, sadly it is not. I am not one to spend a lot of time slagging off the left, not that I don’t have face-planting episodes reading or seeing the left in action. I can in all honestly say that the smartest, most critical and open-minded, the best read and most empathetic, the most giving and erudite people I ever met have all been communists.
On the other hand, I know that a full 10% of the movement, in Dog Days when we remain relatively isolated at least, are odd balls you would cross the street than walk past on the same sidewalk, let alone spend months of your life in the excruciatingly close proximity of activist meetings. Every one of these is true.
“The comrade who makes uncomfortable reference to bestiality when outlining his tactics in the union election, then makes additional uncomfortable references to bestiality when discussing tactics in the anti-war movement. A theme has developed and sensing comrade’s twitching of discomfort as chuckles of laughter continues with said references for length of discussion.”
Among my favorite pieces to write, if I could call anything about what I find to be a difficult process of writing as “favorite”, are travel pieces looking at the histories and landscapes of places I visit. I plan to do many more of these for the Rustbelt; in the future; a happy coinciding of interest.
While I damn the automobile with carrying much of the responsibility for the destruction of cities, the growth of segregation, the creation of mass individual consciousness, the rise of suicidal energy oligarchies, not to mention the incredible waste and ecological damage associated with the diaboli apparati, I make a complete exception for the road trip, which I regard as the greatest of pleasures. Mark Twain once wrote about a particularly satisfying episode hurtling through the plains on the top of a stagecoach watching the country going by while smoking a pipe, “It is what all the ages have struggled for.”
I this piece, again happy to see having found an audience, I write about a road trip through the landscape of southeastern Ohio, the place from where many of my people come and I feel most at home. A place of strip mined coal fields, rich labor history, monumental Indian earthworks and antebellum free black refuges tucked into the hills. .
“We’ll start here at one of my favorite spots. The mound above, called Seip, was the central feature of a large Hopewell work on the Paint Creek off route 41. Very little of the nearly two miles of embankments remain. Seip is special. From the vantage point of its summit the valley spreads around you with terraces on either side. At 30 feet high it belongs to the second tier of mounds in the Ohio in terms of height. It was extensively excavated and some pretty remarkable pieces of material culture unearthed. The Paint Creek valley has over 950 archaeological sites. The confluence of the Paint and Scioto rivers mark the epicenter of Ohio Hopewell culture.”
The title is self-explanatory. I tried to sum up how I felt about the word and the history of communism; the necessity to lay claim to that language and that tradition again, but on the basis of a history and an outlook that, while not dismissing or downplaying the Soviet experience, places communism firmly in the liberatory and egalitarian tradition that is so parcel to our eons of history as to only be considered a part of our human nature. That human nature is still within us today, despite the patent on our genes. It is not an imagined future that needs to be constructed, but an actual present that needs to be transformed; making the Marxist notion of communism the most contemporary of alternatives.
“…isn’t this is just as true of words like ‘democracy’ (what, pray tell, does THAT mean anymore?) or ‘feminism’ or ‘environmentalism’ or any other term that I positively use all the time. It is no accident, however, that each of those words has been positively appropriated by the ruling classes for their own ends (even as we struggle to appropriate them for ours), but the term ‘communism’ (with a good deal of assistance from the Stalinist debacle) has only been vilified and damned. It is because that word, in its essence, cannot belong to them. They cannot appropriate it, for it would stick in their throats and choke them to death. So it is ours, let us treat it so.”
Written in the aftermath of the 2013 explosion of the British SWP over serious allegations concerning sexual assault, cover-up and a bureaucratic boys club all intertwined with generations of learned “Party Building” practice, I wanted to get at the problem as I saw it; the left sees its task in terms of “what is good for the left” (or the particular small part of the left one considers authentic, usually meaning their own – small –group) when it should be organizing on the basis of “what is good for the working class”. I always thought that shift in perspective opened up a world of organizational possibilities, but not necessarily possibilities for your own organization.
My ‘modest proposal’ of all the left groups dissolving and getting together in a few years after working in the social movement to then discuss what kind of party might be necessary to actuate and generalize those movements was met with accusation of liquidationism. As if the end of some small left-wing outfit (with uniquely unique traditions, no doubt) spells the end of the left any more than all the now defunct and equally unique traditions have. The proposal being modestly offered was lost on nearly all. Oh, that the left found a sense of humor; it would go longer than almost anything in getting through the past and into the future.
“…there are ways of looking at history. One is to look at history backwards, looking over your shoulder at the past to see how you got to where you are. This view of the past tends to see inevitabilities and not contingencies as the past progressed to the present. It’s a crap way of looking at how we got here and tells us far more about our current state of mind than it does anything about the past. It’s lazy and often leads us to place our current selves in the past and lecture its inhabitants with what they should or should not do; the view of what to do conveniently illuminate by the knowledge of the consequences of what is already done. It leads us to assert things like: the ‘Bolsheviks should not have banned factions at the 10th Party Congress in 1921.’ I have lots more ‘should haves’ and ‘should not haves’ to apply to history. For example, if I were in Hernando De Soto’s position, I would not have invaded native North America. That understanding and two dollars and fifty cents will buy me a decent cup of fair trade coffee and a clear conscience.”
Written in the run-up to the vapid 2012 race for the Imperial throne between the “more effective evil” (to quote Glen Ford) in Barack Obama and whatever Romney was; but it surely combines banality with evil. The midst of a massive recession and economic dislocation, exponential wealth disparities, continued disenfranchisement and impoverishment of whole black communists, wars abroad, erosion of civil liberties , the climate crisis, and the hollowing out of whatever remained of republican institutions and it was the most boring, vapid and ill-informed election, I have ever lived through. An awful election indeed; perhaps the post’s popularity proved that I was not alone in feeling that way.
“Obama and the Democrats offer only to finish the job they have been engaged in through the first term; of triangulating every last bit of political space left in the country. Where racist Republicans at convention boo Latinas of their own party, the Democrats showcase an undocumented student and then deport tens of thousands of her country folk. If the Republicans are the party of white reaction, than the Dems are the party of banal, multi-cultural reaction. The politics of a branding campaign with the morality of an advertising executive.”
Written in the midst of 2011 when it looked as revolt in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere were giving hope to millions around the world; from Madison, Wisconsin to Jakarta of the possibility of intervening and writing history themselves. Of course, things have turned out to be far more complicated, bloody and, this is the greatest defeat, hopeless. But hopeful it was because it hinted at the possibility of radical change made by the people themselves and for a while gave real testimony to the power of that possibility.
That possibility still exists, despite all.
“If we are lucky as well as skilled enough we might, surfer like, ride the waves of history, whose ebb and flow is as sure as its form is unpredictable, with our feet still on the board, controlling our response to the roil we ride that we might not drown, that we might reach the shore, that land where we might make ‘conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, [our] human nature…’ That we might carry others with us, though too many are destined to drown along the way.”
Thank you to all who have read over the years and who have continued to return even after my occasional absence.
There is a tendency among the left these days to make ones bona fides through a scathing critique…of the left. While not for a moment denying the need for any number of critiques of and dramatic changes from past (and current) practices and positions, there’s something depressingly defeatist and cynical about the trend. The fact is that, despite all our limitations, it has been the left that has carried the greater part of humanity’s interests, hopes and dignity in the face of the grand barbarism of empire and the countless daily humiliations capitalism bestows upon the working class and the oppressed. For too many, that defense was made foolish by hubris; but there is no denying the exuberance that generations of leftists felt struggling in a cause which they held to be a kind of sacred duty to humanity, their fellow workers, their community, and their children; not to mention the improvement of their own lives.
Every community has had in their time at least one Wobblie or Radical Faerie, or a citizen of New Afrika, a militant abolitionist, or a Knight of Labor, a member of the Furies Collective or the Young Lords, a migrant workers organizer, radical poet or a well-read Marxist, an anti-fascist street fighter, a determined earth warrior or a liberation theologist, and sometimes – often – a mix of many of these. Every block of every community has had someone who rebelled, resisted, refused in its history; and occasionally – more often than we tend to think – it was communities themselves, of people and not just places, that did the rebelling.
The traditions and counter-cultures developed by the workers movement, movements of the oppressed and the left over generations have and still can serve as testimony, warning, prophecy, lesson, celebration and benchmark; they connect peoples and ideas over decades and continents, share experiences and most importantly, belie all the claims to legitimacy of the ruling class, of capital, of empire by pointing to rich alternatives already a part of our present, so deeply rooted are they in our pasts; distant and recent. History is indeed a weapon; both in the service of the oppressors and to the ends of liberation. No one knows this better than the Rustbelt’s friend and comrade of many years, the radical activist and archivist, Brad Duncan.
Brad grew up in the Detroit-area, as you will learn, and is as much a product politically of that city’s history as anything else. And what a history. Gravitating towards counter-culture, left-wing ideas and activism as a middling teen, Brad has always had the exuberance and energy of an old school Wobblie; his booming voice heard leading chants on many a protest and picket line. For Brad, revolution was and is and emancipatory act delivered by the oppressed themselves; he has never been a hack… Not being a hack has allowed Brad to be ecumenical in his interests, following the history of the left without regard to narrow tradition and seeing values in nearly all of the divergent traditions in the, broadly defined, revolutionary and anti-colonial left. But Brad is no dilettante, he takes positions and holds them, guided by his own understanding of politics. The obsessions he developed as a teen have grown with Brad as he has become a serious and rigorous archivist, indeed one of the leading archivists, of the revolutionary left in the United States.
Brad went to Hampshire College in the 1990s and returned to his native Detroit, became an organizer for a revolutionary group and was deeply involved in the political life of the city. In Detroit, we lived together for a time; hosting Marxist study groups in our living room, organizing benefits and going to countless demonstrations; engaging in countless political and historical discussions. Moving to his new home in Philadelphia in 2010, where he currently works in a rare books library of a leading University, he has begun putting his substantial archive on-line in a project he has christened the R.F. Kampfer Revolutionary Literature Archive. Brad has an upcoming exhibit, a Trinospohses in Detroit (t1464 Gratiot Avenue) called ‘Power to the Vanguard: Original Printed Materials from Revolutionary Movements Around the World (1963-1987)’ opening Friday, October 17, 2014,he will be giving a talk there on Saturday, October 18 at 1 pm. The exhibit runs through December 28, 2014.
In this two-part interview we will be discussing how he came to collect, what he collected and how that collecting changed his views about political questions and revolutionary history. We’ll also review the movements, organizations and ideas represented in his collection, the role of history in the left and his place as a radical archivist who views his work, not as an academic pursuit, but as a service to the workers and left movements. In Part two we will discuss the future role of the archive and we will discuss galleries of the Black national and liberation struggle in the US, the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, the labor movement and each will present our own ‘favorite’ picks from the archive.
In the interview we are pleased to present a great number of photos, including many rare first brought to the internet by Brad. Aside from individual pieces, included throughout this portion of the interview are galleries of the Women’s Movement, Detroit, the New Communist Movement, Trotskyism and Ireland from items in Brad’s archive; click on any thumbnail for a larger view or to open a slideshow gallery.
Each of these galleries are just a taste of what is available on his website and readers are encouraged to visit to see the many historically significant, aesthetically arresting, politically astute, counter-cultural gems, reminders of past struggles and fallen comrades, and occasionally, just plain odd and embarrassing reflections of a left that didn’t always have all of its critical faculties intact. We hope readers of the Rustbelt enjoy these interviews as much as we have had putting them together. Brad Duncan can be contacted through his website or leave a question in the comments section and he will be happy to answer.
RR: First off, tell us about the name, RF Kampfer, and the person behind the name. Why did you decide to name the archive after him?
BD: RF Kampfer was the pen name of Detroit socialist and autoworker Neil Chacker (1942-2004). He used that name when he wrote his quirky humor column, ‘Random Shots’ for Against the Current magazine. It’s short for ‘Red Front Fighter’ in German. He loved history and the history of the left, although not in an overly nostalgic way. I think hardcore political activists are interested in history because it is the back story of the battleground we find ourselves on today. Ultimately socialist activists like Neil are mostly interested in the future. So I named the archive, and subsequently the blog, after him (“The RF Kampfer Revolutionary Literature Archive”) as an irreverent tribute to my comrade.
RR: Neil would have been thrilled with the tribute, I am sure. What brought you into collecting and when?
BD: Well the real short answer goes like this– I became very politicized in my late teens, and as soon as I started reading about radical Left politics I felt like I needed to know something about the history of Left movements, the history of social movements in general. I was already interested in history, so as I became more and more left-wing my first impulse was to look for library books about the Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World], Black Panthers, the various waves of feminism, and ultimately socialist and anarchist political theory. All I could find was the mainstream histories.
RR: But the mainstream histories of the Left were not sufficient…
BD: Exactly. There were hardly any sufficient secondary sources on the 1960s-90s protest movements, so I realized I had to find the primary sources myself. This is especially true if you’re looking for detailed histories of the real radical Left, meaning groups that were seeking revolutionary change—Marxists, anarchists, Black revolutionary nationalists, radical anti-imperialists, revolutionary feminists. I wasn’t looking for liberalism, I was looking for Leninism!
Click on any photo in the ‘Womens Liberation” gallery to open a slide show and a closer look.
For example, until Max Elbaum wrote the book “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Che and Mao” in the early 2000s, there were essentially no decent histories of the emergence of 1970’s ‘New Communist Movement’ in the United States. And really there was not a solid text on Trotskyism’s growth and change in the 70s and 80s. Even when I moved away to college and had access to bigger libraries I couldn’t really find in-depth historical writing on international Left movements and liberation struggles from the post-60s period. You could find some excellent histories of the U.S. Left up to about the early 60s. But then the trail goes cold.
RR: And this is searching before the internet…
BD: Exactly. I was a teenager, and the internet hadn’t really become a factor yet. At least not for this kind of research anyway. So here I am, in 1996 and 1997 trying to figure out what’s the deal with, for example, the rise of Maoism in the post-SDS New Left or why Latin American Trotskyists turned to guerrillaism in the 70s and there is no scholarly text or popular text available.
There were a couple of websites eventually, but again, most of them focused on contemporary groups, which I was also very interested in, but this didn’t really help me learn about what exactly happened to the generation of the New Left. Not in any real detailed anyway. I wanted detail.
So the idea of finding and reading pamphlets and newspapers produced by the organizations and movements themselves really appealed to me.
RR: What was it about the New Left that appealed to you?
The New Left period (say, 1963-1978) was so fascinating to me because it was a period when radical left-wing politics were gaining a mass audience, when real social movements were militant and growing, and yet it really wasn’t that long ago. And this was 20 years ago that I started to really read about the politics of the radical movements of the 1960s, so it was even more recent then!
On a personal note, I think I was interested in the New Left period because I had always loved the music of the late 1960s and early 70s. The Velvet Underground, Sun Ra Arkestra, The Fugs, all this stuff that I had thought was radical as a young teenager. But when you start to learn about the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, all the radical women’s liberation groups, and all the anti-colonial groups worldwide— it changes your conception of “the radical 60s”!
RR: So collecting really begins for you as a project to answer your questions, not the accumulation of pieces?
BD: I would say in terms of collecting; the thing that got me interested in really hunting for New Left and later 70s Left materials was the result of a problem I saw in the history books. See, all the history books that were around at the time told the story of the 1960s like this: “the early and mid-60s was the Good 60s, because everyone believed in nonviolence, integration, and modest reforms, but the late 60s were the Bad 60s because that’s when everyone embraced violence, reject integrationism for black nationalism, and rejected liberalism for communism”. This general approach was very common in the books I could find in the mid-1990s. It’s the dominant liberal view of the New Left period. Furthermore, and this really made me scratch my head in utter confusion, is all of these histories of 60’s radicalism basically stop abruptly in the early 1970s. They made it seem like the whole generation of ’68, after being drawn into political activism at the height of the anti-war, feminist, and Black Power movements, suddenly retreated from politics in, say, 1973.
But that just couldn’t be the whole story! Even as a young novice I knew that movements that big take a long time to play out and decline. So where was the missing story of what radical activists of the 1960s did during the 1970s? What about the mysterious decade that followed the movement’s zenith? These movements don’t just vanish.
Part of why I started looking for original materials—like party newspapers and pamphlets—was to get a handle on exactly how Marxists, of both Maoist and Trotskyist varieties, dealt with the long dissolution of the “Long 60s”. Because the main histories of SDS, the anti-war movement, Black Power, and the other expression of that period were just not shedding any light on that. I wanted to uncover the hidden 1970s.
RR: And as a model for activism?
BD: As for it being a model for activism, it’s hard to say. I remember thinking of the legacy of the New Left, the radical 70s, and especially the Leninist revival in both its Maoist and Trotskyist forms as having as many negative lessons as it did positive lessons. So I never was one to think that we needed to replicate what they tried back then. Obviously I found the period inspiring, I still find it inspiring. But “model” is a strong word. Really, by the time I was into political activism the kind of organizing that was popular was more influenced by the Zapatistas, horizontalism, the anti-sweatshop movement and the whole style of organizing and ideology that would be called the anti-globalization movement after Seattle in 1999.
My activist experience was more 90s quasi-anarchism to be honest, with a strong influence of the Detroit Newspaper Strike (1995). That’s where I was at politically. I was really interested in all these different periods, I felt like they all had lessons. I was fascinated with the radical 70s and the Leninist “party building” scene–really fascinated–but I never wanted to actually rehash any of that stuff in the late 1990s when I was first digging into this material.
RR: Where did you start looking at first?
BD: What I started figuring out in my late teens is that if you keep your eyes open, and you go to lots of used book stores, used book fairs, library used book sales, etc., you can find items mixed in that tell a hidden story.
The first place I looked was in used book stores, thrift shops, and other places where you might find old printed materials like books and pamphlets. These places were already my haunts. I collected records as a teen, and knew a lot of other record collectors around Detroit and hitting the local old stuff emporiums were already a part of the culture. We’re talking early on here, when I was in my late teens.
Spending countless hours at big, dusty bookstores like John King Books in downtown Detroit, I begin to notice that if you comb through old books enough you will start to see items that were actually published by the organizations, parties and collectives that made up the constellation of Leninist groups that sprung up in the early 1970s.
RR: Give an example?
BD: You’ll see Liberator Press on the spine of a book. Well that’s the October League (Marxist-Leninist). Proletarian Editions? That’s the Communist Labor Party. Pathfinder? Pioneer? Monad? Merit? All publishing imprints of the Socialist Workers Party.
RR: And not only was there a physical paper trail, unlike today where most things are published and discussed digitally, the left was using what it wrote to organize with…
BD: Because those movements believed in print publishing! They believed in pamphlets and newspapers and books and distributing literature, from Marxist-Leninists to Black Nationalists to anarchists. While most of it has not survived, because ultimately most agitational material was made to be topical, there are remnants that do remain if you just commit yourself to looking.
RR: Detroit seems like it would be rich in old lefty books?
Click on any photo in the ‘Detroit” gallery to open a slide show and a closer look.
BD: Detroit has more of this stuff than most cities. I grew up in suburban Detroit, and then lived in the city of Detroit for over a decade, so all of my early years of collecting centered on Detroit. And for a whole number of historical reasons, Detroit has a higher concentration of people who have been involved with Marxist, socialist, Black Nationalist, revolutionary, internationalist and class struggle organizations and movements than people can really comprehend. I mean, the city is at the center of Labor history and Black history, and honestly you can tell by making the rounds of the city’s used book stores, junk shops, yard and estate sales, and libraries. So I would realize in time that I was searching in pretty fertile ground for historical remnants of radical social movements.
RR: What book stores were you looking at?
BD: Early on in my used book shop adventures around the Detroit area in the mid-1990s I found a number of books that really gave me a thrill then, although looking back now they’re not really the rarest titles. But back then I found lots of labor history books published by Charles H. Kerr, the incredibly long-standing radical publisher in Chicago; John King Books had tons of them, all priced around 2 bucks each, maybe 3 bucks.
There was also a bookstore in Ann Arbor called the Wooden Spoon, which was run by lefties and had a terrific collection of left-wing used books at a fair price. So I built myself a budget library of the basics, and then some, with a certain manic intensity. Again, there wasn’t an Amazon to help you find books with small print runs. You really just had to go look in as many places as possible. I’d visit radical bookshops like Blackout Books in New York, New World Resource Center in Chicago, Lucy Parsons in Boston, and Wooden Shoe in Philly.
That’s just the story behind finding this old material hidden in public places, just one side. Ultimately most of my material was given to me by friends, friends of friends, and people I have come to know through political activism. That’s a whole other story! That started in my early 20s, when I had moved to Southwest Detroit.
RR: What kind of people were you meeting politically? Did they encourage your interest in their history?
BD: That was another key factor that brought me into collecting. It’s really central to what I do; my relationship with my elders. What I mean is that as I got more involved with political activism during my early 20s I met more and more veterans of the 60s struggles, folks my parents age. Some of them actually lived on my block near Clark Park in Detroit. Socialists, anarchists, Pan-Africanists, longtime rank and file labor activists. When they discovered that I was really interested in movement history, and that I was a voracious reader, some of them would say “I have all these old pamphlets and newspapers in my attic, or office or garage or whatever, that I’ve been meaning to do something with for decades, so if you want to take some…”
RR: Rather than have them sit in basements forgotten or thrown out, you became a sort of guardian that folks could trust to respect their work….and clean out their closest?
BD: Exactly, I became like this attic-cleaning service for veteran Detroit leftists! I could come to you house and simply load all your tanned, tattered old socialist newspapers from 1971 into my Ford Ranger and you’d have a nice, uncluttered office or attic or garage! I’m only half kidding!
Honestly, many older comrades thought I was doing them the favor. I was clearing out old paper materials that were no longer topical. So I started inheriting and being gifted whole collections by my early 20s. That’s when the whole collecting, researching, discovering, archiving project really started to gain steam.
RR: What were some of your first pieces?
Over time I grabbed all these beautifully aged, dusty little hardcover books about the Wobblies, socialism, Debs, Marx and Engels, all the various topics of the radical 1910s. I was about 18 or 19 years old, maybe 20, and obsessed with the Wobblies, and these beaten little books, and they were in terrible shape, were like a portal to the past. Around that same time I started to realize how robust the publishing arms of the Communist Party, USA and the Socialist Workers Party really were once upon a time.
Titles released by both parties could very easily be found in used book shops around town, and in terms of figuring out the twists and turns of these two attempts at Leninist party building, discovering random paperbacks from International Publishers or Pathfinder Press was an early thrill. Especially finding independent Marxist publishers in a bookshop stuffed with utterly mainstream titles, and you found the one subversive nugget. Priceless!
RR: Are you collecting contemporary things, like flyers handed out at demos or meetings you attend?
BD: All the time, in this period I’m going to a lot of actions, forums, etc. and picking up a lot of contemporary materials all the time; flyers and newspapers that I get from socialist and anarchist groups at protests; that stuff was really starting to pile up.
RR: So when did this collection really start to explode and become more than just a collection of books? What was the turning point?
BD: That happened in the summer of 2000. There’s a small, gritty used paperback shop in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood that I would visit while out on my rounds despite it rare yielding anything good. One day the owner says he has “some commie stuff in the backroom” that I might be interested in. People say that to me all the time and often they mean Soviet-related stuff that’s dry and generally uninteresting. But what he brought out took my breath away. Apparently one of the long-standing Marxist-Leninist organizations of the 1970s and 80s, part of the New Communist Movement which arose from the New Left, had sold its entire archive of movement publications from the late 60’s through the mid-80s. The shop owner brings out 12 large boxes of printed items, mostly newspapers and pamphlets, from just about every single radical left current of the 1970s, especially those that were influenced by Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese revolution.
RR: So a Marxist group had assembled a collection of material by other groups?
BD: Most groups assembled libraries like this. They’d send their periodicals and publications to other parties or collectives that were a part of their political milieu, and those groups would in turn send their periodicals. This was said to help cross-organizational co-operation by my feeling is it was mostly to provide quotes for lacerating polemics against rival parties, but that’s another story. Anyway, here it was in front of my eyes, packed into a dozen cardboard boxes on Cass Ave. in Detroit, a perfectly preserved archeological find. The entire 1970s, post-New Left ‘New Communist Movement’, from the U.S. to Iran to India to Ireland to El Salvador, sprawled out in front of me. I was dizzy.
RR: We’re talking about Maoism here, right?
Click on any photo in the ‘New Communist Movement” gallery to open a slide show and a closer look.
BD: Well sure, Maoism for lack of a better word. The Chinese Revolution, the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, and China’s bold declarations of support for national liberation struggles had a wide-ranging influence on radical Left movements everywhere from the U.S. to India. Not all of these movements would call themselves ‘Maoist’, although some would. But yeah, we’re talking about the same current of revolutionary politics. As opposed to Trotskyism or the mainstream Communist Parties.
Another reason why ‘Maoism’ as a term doesn’t tell the whole story is that many groups in this current were also influenced by the Cuban revolution, Black nationalism, and other sources. This was an important trend in the late 60s and through the 70s.
Let me just say that this wing of the movement was exactly one of the wings of the far-left that I was so eager to research but had hit a wall! These were exactly the organizations that I was trying to investigate, and here were all the primary sources I could possibly handle. I bought the first box for forty bucks, and then bought the other boxes for about 20 bucks each. I’d go in every other weekend and get a new box until I had them all.
RR: Unbelievable. Talk about luck.
BD: This wasn’t just a nice book collection; this was an archive of extremely unique items ranging from the Naxalite movement in India to the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. Although majority white groups, such as the Marxist-Leninist “party-building” groups that emerged from the dissolution of Students for a Democratic Society, feature in the collection, many of the organizations were people of color majority organizations. This was one of the aspects of the 70s New Communist Movement that had always interested me the most, but again hard information and primary sources had been so hard to find.
But here was newspapers Asian-American groups like I Wor Kuen, J-Town Collective and Wei Min She, Chicano organizations like August 29th Movement and the Communist Collective of the Chicano Nation, and African-American groups like Black Workers Congress and the Congress of Afrikan People. These 12 boxes became an obsession. I feel like I spent the first half of my 20’s reading every paper and pamphlet in this entrancing haul. In terms of hunting for old leftist literature, this was my baptism by fire.
RR: But you’re mostly getting things from friends you said. Let’s get back to that. I’m very interested in how these historical materials change hands, about the personal and political connections behind it.
BD: You’re right, and hot on the heels of this insane Maoist literature score I started to come into some great materials from another wing of the Marxist left entirely. I joined the socialist group Solidarity when I was 21, and was involved with the Detroit branch as soon as I moved to Southwest Detroit the following year.
I actually worked full-time for the organization for a couple years right out of college, so I knew a whole vast network of socialists in Detroit and different cities. Solidarity was started in the mid-1980s as a fusion of three groups that come from a Trotskyist background. So lots of the older members of Solidarity that I would meet, who I of course really looked up to and was constantly learning from, were former members of either the International Socialists or the Socialist Workers Party.
These folks, most of whom had joined the IS or SWP during the late 60s or early 70s, were real mentors to me. I wanted to know about their history. I took their history very, very seriously because I took these people seriously as activists. So when a comrade hands me a stack of old party newspapers—with front page coverage of the crucial struggles of the radical 70s!!—it’s like a portal to the past. It’s as close as I’m going to get to really understanding the mechanics of the movement during its 1968-1974 heyday. Flyers for local events, internal debates, theoretical and agitational publications, and other course the revolutionary tabloids that cadre sold at factory gates across the country, often at shift-change in the middle of the night.
The more I got to know folks from the Trotskyist Left—and the, um, post-post-Trotskyist Left?—the more folks learned that I’m really interested in the history of the movement and that I really like to read old newspaper and pamphlets. So to a certain extent I developed a profile as someone who you should donate your old political literature to. I’d treat it well and read it and give it a good home.
RR: Who were some of the Trotskyists?
Click on any photo in the ‘Trotskyism” gallery to open a slide show and a closer look.
BD: Around this time I also became friends with people in Detroit and Ann Arbor who were in a small group called the Trotskyist League. Members of the TL had been involved in Anti-Racist Action, extensive local labor activism, and other struggles since the early 80s when they were a part of the Revolutionary Workers League. My close friendship and political collaboration with TL folks led to boxes of comrades unwanted old movement literature too, including cool items from exiled Iranian left groups from the early 80s, shop-floor agitprop from Dearborn’s Ford Rouge factory, and of course anti-fascist stuff.
I also became close with people who had previously been in a group called the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, which included many significant SWP veterans. One friend who had been in the FIT and later joined
Solidarity gave me an entire Ford Focus full of original Socialist Workers Party publications from the 1930s-1980s. It was unbelievably generous, I felt so honored to be the caretaker.
I ended up inheriting an incredible amount of material from the International Socialists (circa 1969-1985) and Socialist Workers Party (circa early 1930s to early 1980s), and that was thanks to people who were first and foremost friends and comrades. That’s the foundation of my Trotskyism collection. But really I’ve got friends and friends of friends in a number of other groups that I have received literature donations from.
RR: You obviously took your role as caretaker seriously. And once you get a reputation in a circle of people it grows and you become something like a magnet for old left-wing paper materials.
BD: Exactly! My apartment became something of repository; at least once this whole dynamic snowballed. I was never pushy; I never twisted anyone’s arm for old pamphlets! But I did honestly help a lot of comrades clean out their office or garage and took old literature as payment. I wasn’t exaggerating about that.
Once it got rolling, it was basically a full-time thing. I was looking for old leftist newspapers—Trotskyist, Maoist, anarchist, Black Power, feminist, anti-imperialist—constantly and looking everywhere. I could tell you so many ridiculous stories about going great length to find old leftist literature, or stories of blind luck. I don’t want to ramble; there are other things to talk about!
RR: I like the stories of discovering this stuff, go on.
BD: Sure. Once I was cat-sitting for a friend of mine who is a longtime socialist. She was radicalized in 1968 and eventually took a job in an auto factory and become a popular local union leader. Not an entirely uncommon story for New Left era Marxist activists, although most were not as successful. It was a 3 month gig and I was given most of her collection of posters from the Angolan independence movement that I discovered in her basement as (most of) my payment. She was perhaps a bit perplexed that I was that in love with these posters. They were musty and torn. But by that point I was so wrapped up in finding original printed materials from radical social movements and liberation struggles that the idea of having original posters printed by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola in 1975—on the eve of victory—was simply more important than anything to me. And if you’re not personal friends with veteran socialist, anti-imperialist activists, how do you find those items? Those kinds of items are by definition only in the basement/attic/closet of a very specific kind of person. I’m just lucky enough to be friends with political activists who found it difficult to throw things away for decades.
Want to hear another one of my favorite random mega-score stories?
RR: Of course I do.
BD: It was the summer of 2001 and I was living in Southwest Detroit, on a street nicknamed “Red Row” for the high concentration of socialists who had lived on that street over the years. The SWP had set up a Pathfinder bookstore on the corner near Clark Park. By this time their Detroit presence had dwindled to almost nothing so the bookstore was never really open. Needless to say this is not the SWP of the New Left era, but that’s another story. Anyway one day I’m driving by and not only is the store open, and not only are they having a going out of business mega-sale—which means I’m already kind of freaking out—but this sale includes more than just Pathfinder titles from recent decades (some of which I’m decidedly not interested in actually), but contains the personal book collections of many members of the branch as well as the Detroit branch’s library going back to the 1940s. Like the branch and its members were getting rid of all print media at once!
RR: The kind of thing a collector dreams of! It’s all about knowing the right people and place and then being in the right place at the right time. Knowledge, art and luck.
And this process meant being there just when they were selling pamphlets about the Minneapolis Teamsters strike from the 40s, anti-colonial pamphlets from the early 60s (cool items about Algeria and Congo), Malcolm X and Fidel pamphlets from 1963, and stacks on items from Trotskyist parties around the world, especially the Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Sri Lanka from the 1950s. And lots of 70s materials from other Fourth International groups across Europe and Latin America. There weren’t many customers there.
And they were selling this stuff for 50 cents for pamphlets and paperbacks, dollar for hardcovers. Basically, it was a yard sale of 65 years of Trotskyist publishing. I figured I’d make them a deal. I said how about I donate 100 or so bucks to the branch and we just load all of this stuff into my truck right now and call it a day.
I remember that day well. I was at a going away part for a friend and Marty Glaberman was there. And then I stumbled into buying an entire Trotskyist bookstore on the way home. Much like the scene at that musty old bookstore in the Cass Corridor where I stumbled into that Marxist-Leninist group’s archive, this was another complete lucky break. I don’t have any explanation! These situations just find me!
RR: We both share a long interest in Ireland. the first conversation I remember having with you was about the 1981 Hunger Strikes on the steps of Zoot’s Coffee House in Detroit. I know you visited in the 90s, were you collecting when you went?
BD: I remember it like it was yesterday! Everyone was sitting around on the front porch, as was the tradition at Zoot’s Coffee, and I hear this guy saying to someone “Martin Hurson, Michael Devine, Joe McDonnell…” and I immediately thought ‘this guy is talking about the 1981 hunger strikes in Ireland!’ And it turns out that you were also the guy who had been leaving Marxist newspapers—including ‘conflicting’ tendencies—on the back table. I had been looking for you! And that was our first bond. I remember sitting in your miniscule apartment on Fourth Street in Detroit watching the protests against the Orange Order parades on television. I remember watching the standoff at Drumcree with you, and talking all night about the twists and turns of Northern Irish politics in the mid-90s.
RR: And that was the time of the Detroit Newspaper Strike, which was the reason I came to Detroit to live; a transformative event for all involved.
BD: The Detroit Newspaper Strike was going full swing back then, which had a huge, huge impact on me. There were massive picket lines, conflicts with the company’s rented police force, and some pretty bold direct actions. It was exciting. And at the same time there were strikes in Decatur, Illinois and actually a couple other Upper Midwestern towns, and there was the emergence of the Zapatistas in Mexico–so there were little pockets of protest, little islands of resistance–but honesty, that whole mid-90s era was a horrible period for leftists. I really came on board at a low point! But I’ll tell you what; I sure picked up a lot of newspapers, pamphlets, and flyers at those strike demonstrations.
I remember the huge national demonstration for the Detroit Newspaper Strike in the summer of 1997. The whole radical labor subculture was there. Militant unionists came from far and wide, it was pretty incredible. Well over 20,000 marching through downtown Detroit. And what a selection of agitprop newspapers! I filled my backpack that day, and took home a half dozen different discarded picket signs for my collection.
RR: OK, back to Ireland…
Click on any photo in the ‘Ireland” gallery to open a slide show and a closer look.
BD: Yeah, Ireland. I had been learning about the Irish republican movement in Ireland since, well, long before I was a radical. I remember seeing Irish republican demonstrators picketing a bagpipe concert by members of the BritishArmy. I went with my family as a kid to hear the bagpipes, but the musicians were soldiers so people from Irish Northern Aid protested out front with photos of people killed by the British Army in the north of Ireland. So I had always been interested, and as I became a leftist and started really digging in and learning about 20th century revolutionary movements, Ireland really came to the fore with me.
Of course the peace process hadn’t really blossomed yet, and there were campaigns that I could participate in like the campaign to free Roisin McAliskey. So Ireland was important for me, and learning the ins and outs of the Troubles was a whole political education. I took learning the history seriously.
By the time I spent a summer in Belfast in 1999, a year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I had been completely obsessed with the history and politics of the post-1969 conflict for years. Actually spending time there and meeting people and just walking around Belfast was absolutely life-changing.
I was definitely collecting political literature pretty seriously already then, and you better believe that I was determined to find cool items during my summer in Belfast! It was almost too easy. There are a number of places that sell anti-imperialist and leftist literature and, unlike bookstores back home, nearly all of the periodicals and publications were titles you really couldn’t find back home. A couple of republican groups had a bookshops right on the Falls Road, which of course had some cool items. There’s an Irish language cultural center that has periodicals from different independence movements around Europe. I got newspapers and pamphlets from Connolly Books in Dublin, too. I had always wanted to go there. I came back to Detroit with a duffel bag of party newspapers and flyers.
Ireland has always been a collecting focus, always. And other interests come and go to a certain extent, but I’m never not interested in the Troubles, the Irish left, Marxism and the National Question, republicanism…even just talking about it makes me want to read some old pamphlets from 1973!
RR: Let’s talk about some of the pieces. Which one tells a story about Ireland that you think people should know, but don’t?
BD: One of my absolute favorite Irish pieces is a hefty pamphlet from 1977 titled “‘Prison Struggle – the story of continuing resistance behind the wire”. It was published in Belfast by publishing imprint of the Provisional Republican Movement. It basically details life in prison for Irish Republican prisoners of war before Britain decided to revoke their political prisoner status. So the pamphlet is a really intimate look at POW camps during a period when Irish Republican prisoners were exempt from prison labor and could hold classes, socialize with comrades in their own clothes, and other activities aimed and political education of Provisional IRA members and also keeping up moral and cohesion while behind bars.
The pamphlet includes prisoner drawings of political education sessions, with POWs shown reading classic revolutionary works. And there are photographs to, which of course required ingenuity to take inside the prison walls. The pamphlet was assembled by supporters on the outside, but most of the content is by the prisoners themselves. Of course as you read it you realize that not long after these photos were taken the prisons became increasingly oppressive and whatever small rights POWs had was taken away. Britain was attempting to isolate the prisoners from their supporters, to demoralize them, and to present Irish republicanism as being merely an armed criminal conspiracy. This all lays the basis for the hunger strike of 1981 when ten Irish republican prisoners died. So the pamphlet comes from an important era, and it captures a turning point in the struggle. Before the blanket protest, before the no-wash protest and eventually the hunger strike.
RR: Do you have original 1980-81 Hunger Strike material in your collection?
BD: Yes, not just material that came out of the campaign, but I also have newspapers by many left groups that cover the hunger strikes. For example there was a quite dynamic M-L organization in Montreal at the time called Marxist Leninist Organization of Canada (IN STRUGGLE!), and they sent journalists to the north of Ireland in 1981 to cover it. I have some great items from them. I also have a newspaper from Amiri Baraka’s group, League of Revolutionary Struggle, with the hunger strikes on the cover. The whole radical Left covered the events that spring and summer.
RR: I know you are passionate about all of this, but are there parts of your collection that you’ve assembled as a completest or to get the technically correct material, while others you are drawn to for personal or even sen timental reasons?
BD: I would say that’s true. Things make it into my collection or get pruned from my collection based on a number of criteria. And we should talk more about pruning items too, that’s important for collectors. However, there are some items that I keep because they are representational. They fill in gaps; they help tell a fuller story. Items that are bibliographically necessary, you might say. But really I’m pretty disciplined about what I take on now. My overall trend these last few years has been towards becoming more and more focused. If I’m not that interested in a topic or a specific printed item I’ll rethink if I should even have it in the archive.
RR: Do you ever ‘prune’ the archive to make room, or get rid of redundant or lesser material?
BD: I get rid of materials all the time. I donate books to movement spaces, I give books away to friends, and generally try to re-circulate anything that doesn’t seem like it should really go with what I’m trying to do with the archive.
A ton of my books are at Trinisohphes in Detroit, so you can read about labor and radical history while enjoying a Free Jazz performance or an art exhibit. Some of my books are at an anarchist vegan coffeehouse in South Philly, some of my books are at a Black nationalist café on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park, Michigan, some of my books were confiscated during the raid on the Occupy Wall Street, some of my books have been given to groups that send books to prisoners, and a lot of my books have gone to activist friends who are younger and don’t know the history yet but want to learn. I just give away books a lot. Like I said, that’s how I got most of mine. That’s what separates me from hoarders! I have a very socialist approach to re-circulating old books.
End of Part I
A fine talk by Bernadette McAliskey on the upcoming vote in Scotland. Here at the Rustbelt, we support a Yes vote in the September 18th referendum on Scottish independence. While it seems that a large majority of the (far) left supports independence, a few are demanding a No vote. I suppose I can understand an abstention, though I don’t agree with it, but to urge, along with every British ruling-class git, a No vote is something I do not understand (and I’ve read the arguments). Perhaps someone with that position can put it forward here.