Louis Proyect. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: How do you explain the decline of the American Left?
Louis Proyect: The left that I joined in 1967 embraced a “Marxist-Leninist” model that led to deeply sectarian concepts and even cult-like tendencies. This was true of both Trotskyist groups, such as the one I belonged to, and Maoist groups. I have written many articles about these problems that can be read at: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization.htm but would recommend “Lenin in Context” as a good place to start. Twenty years ago when Marxists began exchanging ideas on the mailing list that would evolve into Marxmail, a query similar to yours prompted me to begin writing about the problem that I first encountered in the early 80s when the Socialist Workers Party, from which I had recently resigned, developed abstentionist positions in the name of a “turn to industry”. At the time it had close to two thousand members, including in the youth group, but now has less than a hundred. So your question of the decline on the left is closely related to the fate of this group that expected the 1930s to repeat itself in the early 80s despite indications that the working class was not radicalizing.
As for the New Communist Movement, aka the Maoists, they went through an identical decline mostly as a result of overprojecting the state of the class struggle in the same way as we did. I strongly recommend ex-Maoist Max Elbaum’s Verso book “Revolution in the Air” that draws many of the same conclusions found in my articles.
Even if the left had abandoned self-destructive sectarian methods, it still would have been difficult to sustain the kind of growth that took place in the 1960s and early 70s. To start with, the end of the Vietnam war removed one of the main irritants to young men who no longer had to worry about being drafted. Around the same time the war ended, the Supreme Court legalized abortion, which had the effect of satisfying the main demand of the woman’s liberation movement. The Black liberation struggle continued to face the same oppressive social conditions that had brought it into existence but had to endure challenges that reduced its numbers and impact. To start with, repression was much deeper against Black militants. The FBI and local police departments used fierce repression against the Black Panther Party and other such groups that they never recovered from. Also, the ruling class made a calculated decision to fund anti-poverty programs that had a powerful cooptation logic. It also opened the door for Black elected officials, at least in the Democratic Party. Black mayors cropped up all around the country giving some in the Black community a sense that reform was possible. The election of Barack Obama was a crowning victory for those trying to foster such illusions.
In your opinion, is it not necessary to have a strong labor movement to frame the struggles of the underprivileged classes? What remains of the epic of the trade union and workers’ movement in the USA?
This is one of the biggest problems facing the left. The trade unions have shrunk drastically over the past few decades largely as a result of the deindustrialization of auto, steel, electronics and other mainstays of the AFL-CIO. Cities such as Detroit that used to have powerful civil right groups and trade unions, even if only reform-oriented, have lost the economic base that made them possible.
The only unions sustaining any growth today are in the service industries such as those organized by AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). As important as such unions are, they lack the raw power that could confront capital in the way that the Teamsters Union used to in the 1950s and 60s. Despite their relatively tame stance vis-à-vis their employers, the Trump administration is determined to break such unions because they are a major source of funding and organizational muscle for the Democratic Party. At the same time, he is seeking a confrontation with workers in the service industries, he is courting workers in the construction and mining industry since his nationalist rhetoric and climate change denialism enables him to pose as a friend of workers hoping to get jobs digging coal, constructing pipelines, etc.
On top of all these problems, there is hardly any indication of a trade union movement as such. All of the major unions, both blue-collar and white-collar, are organized on the basis of business unionism, which limits itself to wage increases, minimal layoffs, and other economic protections that while of benefit to dues-paying members has hardly any relationship to the deeper crisis of the American working class.
The last time there was anything resembling a full-scale trade union movement as such was the United Farm Workers but it too became a business union hostile to any challenges from the rank-and-file.
How do you explain the total lack of combativeness of the trade union movement faced with the ultraliberal offensive?
This is related to the question above obviously. Mostly, workers are fearful of owners closing down a factory under the feet if they fight too hard. With technologies allowing corporate headquarters in New York to operate production in East Asia, Mexico and elsewhere, it is very easy to pick up and move. The October 15, 2017 NY Times had a long article on a female steelworker who worked for a ball-bearing manufacturing company called Rexnord that was moving to Mexico. She was a skilled worker doing the job usually done by men that paid $25 per hour. Rexnord was going to Mexico where they planned to pay someone doing the same job $6 per hour. Not only that, they were offering her a $5000 bonus to train the Mexicans who had come up to Rexnord. Desperation forced her to train the workers who would soon replace her.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, globalization had nowhere near the power it has today. Workers in auto, steel and electronics could withhold their labor and bring the bosses to their knees. Today, it is the workers who are on their knees for the most part.
Did not the American Left which was seduced by Obama commit a strategic error? During the reign of Obama, we saw imperialist wars as well as many racist crimes, wasn’t Obama a lure?
The radical left was not taken in that much. The magazine CounterPunch, upon whose board I serve as film editor, never gave an inch to Obama. It published a book titled “Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion” that included articles that debunked the idea that Obama would be the next FDR. Not only that, it also opposed Bernie Sanders primary bid in on the same grounds, namely that the Democratic Party was a dead-end for the left.
On the other hand, there were many on the left who did support Obama even if they qualified their support as “lesser evil”. For some, there was an analogy with the New Deal. Roosevelt once said that he needed pressure from the left to get anything done. This encouraged Obama supporters to promote the idea that the left had to mobilize to push him to the left, even though there was little recognition that the left in 2008 was nothing like the left in 1932. Furthermore, back then when the USSR existed, there was the enormous pressure of an alternative model that made the ruling class worry about being overthrown unless it began to adopt important reforms such as Social Security.
The problem of the Democratic Party is key to American politics. Despite the gloomy picture I painted of the revolutionary left in question above, the reform-oriented left is growing dramatically. The DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) now has over 25,000 members, many of whom worked to get Bernie Sanders elected. They generally understand socialism in different terms than someone like myself but can be important activists around important struggles taking shape under an extremely reactionary White House. I wrote an appeal to the DSA about breaking from the Democratic Party (https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/15/reflections-on-the-dsa/) but I am not optimistic. My guess is that the Democratic Party still has a grip on many young people because of its command of the mass media and the deep roots it has in American society as a party with a 175-year history.
Is not a rebuilding of the American Left and the trade union movement necessary? And with what tools?
It is absolutely necessary. The most important catalyst would be an organized movement of the revolutionary left that could have the clout to move broad sectors of the population into action in the way that the Vietnam antiwar movement did. That is basically what I have been arguing for over the past 35 years or so. With the collapse of the sectarian left, there is much more appeal for a broad-based radical party but it will take a nucleus of dedicated and younger activists to bring it together. I am far too old to be part of that nucleus but my articles are directed to those who might be the future leadership.
All the progressives and revolutionaries of the world will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, according to you, what is the major lesson of this revolution and this great moment of history?
This is not easy to sum up in a few words. It would probably take a book to answer properly but let me try to briefly convey some thoughts.
The major lesson is that workers could take control of their own destiny and move toward a just society based on the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The fact that 21 counter-revolutionary armies invaded the USSR to destroy this experiment indicates that it was a mortal threat to the capitalist status quo. In the words of Noam Chomsky who was commenting on the American war in Indochina, it was the need to destroy “a positive example of successful development.”
When I was young, it was difficult to think of the USSR as a “positive example” because of the repression and its faltering economy. When the USSR collapsed, there was a widespread belief that “there is no alternative” (TINA) to capitalism. Now that the Great Recession in the USA lingers on and the economy shows no signs of rebounding with the kind of vigor capitalist ideologues have promised, many people like the steelworker at Rexnord or the young unemployed college graduate saddled with $50,000 in debt will be as open to a different economic model as people were in the 1930s. The left has to be able to make the case for something like the USSR model but without the dogmatic trappings of Red Stars and hammer and sickles that make no sense to the average American. Our work is cut out for us.
Don’t you think a new reading of some left-wing thinkers like Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman and James M. Blaut are needed to rebuild the American Left?
Absolutely. Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman tried to build a movement in the early 50s under very difficult circumstances. Much of what they wrote has a freshness and relevance that stand up well today. I invite people to look at articles from the American Socialist that they published in the 1950s here.
The late Jim Blaut, who was a very good friend of mine and a great influence on the way I think about the origins of capitalism, was a powerful example of how academics can help to change society. He wrote a book on the national question that was meant to help leaders of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party develop a strategy for national independence. In an obituary that appeared after his death 17 years ago, he said that he was proudest of being arrested in an antiwar protest in the 1960s. A sample of his articles can be read here.
I interviewed the great thinker Henry Giroux. In your opinion, does not Giroux’s thought open up perspectives for the understanding of today’s world and does it not offer alternatives to ultra-liberalism?
I have very great respect for Giroux as an academic who follows the example of Jim Blaut. I particularly value his analysis of the education crisis in the USA, both in secondary schools and higher education. Having worked at Columbia University for 21 years until my retirement a few years ago, I saw the rot from the perspective of an insider. Giroux’s “University in Chains: Confronting the Military-industrial-academic Complex” is probably the best introduction to how capitalism has been destroying the soul of academia.
You had an experience of struggle in South Africa. I interviewed Patrick Bond who was the economic advisor to President Mandela and who drafted the White Paper on Reconstruction and Development in the South African government. He explained that South Africa is experiencing a major crisis. Don’t you think that the gentrification of the political elites can wreck a revolutionary experience as seen in South Africa or Algeria, my home country where oligarchs took power?
What is happening in South Africa today and Algeria for decades now is a tragedy. Considering the sacrifice of lives that went into destroying apartheid and gaining independence from France, it is deeply frustrating to see how class divisions remain in both nations. When I visited the ANC in exile in 1991, I never would have dreamed that you would have a situation in which cops would kill striking miners in South Africa under an ANC government 21 years later. Like most socialists, I expected the ANC to deliver on its ambitious program that while not specifically socialist was very clear about addressing class as well as racial injustice.
As is the case in countries elsewhere, a new left is developing in South Africa that challenges the economic apartheid. I am glad to have met and become a friend and comrade of Patrick Bond about 15 years ago. Through access to the Internet that is as important to our movement today as the printed press was to the revolutionary movement in the early 1900s, I have begun to connect with the emerging revolutionary left worldwide. Now, more than ever, a worldwide revolutionary movement is needed to help us move forward to socialism. The final showdown will very likely take place in a country like the USA. If it was possible for a semi-peripheral country like Russia to have been nearly destroyed in the early 1920s, a Socialist America will not have to worry about outside intervention given its massive defensive capabilities.
Can you tell us about your fighting experience in countries like South Africa or Nicaragua?
To be honest, I never was involved in fighting. My role was mostly as a consultant to the ANC and to the FSLN in Nicaragua about technical assistance that could get from American volunteers. I am proud of the work I did but would not represent myself as an actual combatant.
Do you think Trump is as dangerous as Bush and the neocons? And how do you explain the support of the limousine leftists to Hillary Clinton who is an inveterate warmonger?
It is hard to say. Trump’s intentions are not matched by his capabilities. Bush had far more support from the neocons, including many in the Democratic Party who voted for his adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. That being said, his intentions are far more worrisome than anything ever projected by Bush. We are living in very dangerous times, especially around the nuclear showdown with North Korea. There is a tremendous need right now for mass demonstrations in Washington but unfortunately the left is too divided and too weak to organize them.
Support for Hillary Clinton is mostly on the “lesser evil” basis. In 2016, there were those on the left who actually viewed Trump as less dangerous than her because of his isolationist “America First” rhetoric. It turned out that his words were cheap, just as Obama’s were in 2007.
Another task facing a new left party in the USA will be the construction of a principled antiwar and anti-imperialist movement that is not in the habit of reflexively following the Kremlin’s strategic, realpolitik agenda. While the USA is clearly the most dangerous military power in the world today, we must uphold a consistent internationalism resting on a class basis.
You are also a cinematic art critic; how do you explain the current Hollywood scandals with Harvey Weinstein? Do you think that the Hollywood of the American dream and propaganda has revealed its true face, the one of money king, sex and drugs?
Some have pointed out that sexual assaults are taking place everywhere, including at the most prestigious universities in the USA such as Caltech, where an astrophysicist was forced to resign after sexually harassing two female students. Harvey Weinstein defended himself when the charges were reported in the NY Times by saying that the culture in the 60s and 70s were more permissive. This is utter nonsense. Back then a powerful feminist movement were putting men like Weinstein on the defensive but with the decline of the movement, such 1950s behavior began to threaten women once again. One of the benefits of a new left would be a powerful feminist component that would make sexual harassment difficult to carry out. Male supremacy, like white supremacy, grows stronger in periods of reaction. Fortunately, the men who have such values have been soundly rejected by most thinking and caring people in the past. That is what the immense reaction against Weinstein indicates. We need to reinforce the left in the USA so such people are not only put on the defensive but defanged totally.
You are both a researcher and an activist, and you are also the moderator of the Marxist mailing list. What is the impact of your work on people’s awareness?
It is difficult to say. Most of the time I write to preserve my sanity. When I dropped out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I had plans to write fiction. Unfortunately, the decay of late capitalism got in the way.
Do you think the alternative press has effectively countered mainstream media? Since information is a major key to counter the empire, do you think the alternative press is winning the battle against the dominant media?
I would like to think so. I have a relative who is staying with us temporarily. He was a corporate executive now hoping to start a new job in the USA but despite his socio-economic status, he relies on websites such as Counterpunch to get the real story. The Internet has had an enormous impact on popular opinion. I’d like to think that if we had it back in 1967, the war in Vietnam would not have dragged on as long as it did. When the class struggle deepens qualitatively over the next few years, it will be a powerful weapon against the class enemy. There will be obstacles put in our way but in the long run, I am optimistic that it will be as important to your generation as Iskra was to Lenin’s.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Louis Proyect?
Louis Proyect worked at the Columbia University, New York City, at theDepartment of Arts and Humanities.
He is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear.
He first became active in socialist politics in 1967, the beginning of his 11 years in the American Trotskyist movement. Despite his profound respect for Leon Trotsky as a Marxist thinker, he views the Trotskyist movement as such a sectarian mistake. Throughout most of the 80s, he was active in the Central American solidarity movement, first with CISPES and then with Tecnica, an organization that sent computer programmers and other skilled professionals to Nicaragua. The project eventually took root in southern Africa as well, where it worked with SWAPO and the ANC. More recently he has given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet.
He has been strongly influenced by the example of The Socialist Union, a group led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman who left the Trotskyist movement in 1953 in order to create an alternative to the sectarian “vanguard” model. For six years they published a magazine called The American Socialist and worked to regroup the left.Marxmail is a conscious attempt to link up with their traditions.
He has also created a small archive of the writings of James M. Blaut, who died in November, 2000. Jim was an outstanding scholar and revolutionary whose contributions to our movement are best commemorated through his work.
His articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus(Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions(Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia).
He is also a member of the NY Film Critics Online.
Published in American Herald Tribune, November 8, 2017: https://ahtribune.com/us/1997-louis-proyect.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.091117.htm