An abbreviated version is published online at the Platypus site.
The full version online is here, in MP3 format.
What I read in the Platypus transcript was good, but obviously wrong in places. So I have prepared his transcript directly from the recording. It is complete, far fuller than the printed version in at the Platypus site, and corrects many errors in that transcript.
Start and End points refer to minutes and seconds in that MP3 version.
Start: 56:45 (approx)
Alan Spector: I got a book too. Its about Marxism, but I got a tie-in deal with Hollywood. We got Brad Pitt, hes going to play Marx. We got Matt Damon, hes going to be Engels. Weve got Angelina lined up to do Rosa Luxemburg. We got a tie-in with McDonalds Happy Meal, we got little action figures. We got it all covered Kanyes going to do the music sound track for the movie, its going to be based on Gil Scott-Herons old song, its called "the revolution will not be on Facebook, the revolution will not be Twittered.
But in any case, the highest compliment anybody can give anybody is to fight with them. Really. The biggest insult you can give somebody is to be patronizing, is to pat them on the head, is to sing "Kumbaya" when you know you disagree. If youre willing to risk losing somebodys friendship because you feel its important to say what you need to say, thats actually the greatest respect you can give somebody.
And the most dangerous thing that anybody can do is to believe something because it makes you feel good. Its OK to do things that make you feel good usually. But you have to be careful about thinking something that makes you feel good. Because if you start believing things because they make you feel good, then whoever can make you feel good will have you dancing around on the end of a string. They will own you. Thats the problem with the religious Right. Not that these people are dedicating their life to God, but because theyre dedicating their life to somebody whos pulling the strings. Some human. Well, we have to ask ourselves the same question. Are we believing something because it makes us feel good? Or are we believing something because its based on objective reality, with an understanding that objective reality is always changing and our perceptions are always limited. We all know that. I wont go over that again. But nevertheless, theres a reality thats strong enough for us to stand on, strong enough for us to at least jump to the next step, like some helpless frog on a 1980s video game, hoping that at least we can get to the next log before the other one passes away. And there is such a thing as progress.
People tend to believe that the world revolves around them. Theres one common thread perhaps the only common thread in all of our four talks. It is that the world does not revolve around our own individual selves. And I think thats very important. But I think that for students, whether in the 1960s, the 70s, or today, theres a tendency to believe that social change will come o my God -- from the students. How convenient! Im a student, and Im an intellectual, and Im a working-class person no, Im not yes, I am gee, I dont know. Well, maybe theres a "new working class." Well, whatever it is, Im the center of the world.
I deal with sociologists. They act like that all the time. They got it down perfectly. On the one hand, they can hobnob with intellectuals and rub shoulders with them, because hey! You know, they understand the difference between Louis Vuitton and Louis Althusser, or something. On the other hand, they also can feel like theyre doing good in the world. I dont want to be too contemptuous, because I think there are two kinds of liberals. And I think that a lot of people are guided by a sense of humanism, wanting to serve people, and thats basically a good thing, whether or not we agree or not on fundamental core issues.
But the idea was that the working class was going to disappear, or that it was weak and helpless, or stupid, or something. But the big news is it did not disappear, actually. Not just the old-fashioned floor, but the fairly modern chair youre sitting in was still built by workers somewhere. The difference was that globalization, imperialism, which means that now major parts of the working class are 15-year-old girls in Guatemala making the shirts that you are wearing, or 18-year-old girls in Taiwan making the computers that intellectuals type on while they talk about how theres no working class any more.
So the world is very complicated. But I would just like to toss one little caveat out, this old joke, really old joke. You know, there was this sort of racist TV show for kids about the Lone Ranger. He had this native American partner named Tonto. I dont know. Anyway, but the standard joke went like this. When the Lone Ranger said to his, quote, "Indian friend", "Were surrounded! What do we do?" and the assistant, the Indian, says to him: "What do you mean we"? And I think that we have to be careful about "we". Those of us who are talking about the Left are talking about it from our own individual perspectives.
There was a huge Left. Now, probably the common thing were talking about here is the white campus left. Maybe that should have been the way the subject was framed. This was an important movement, but only one movement. It would take volumes to talk about the black liberation movement, the struggle against racism, and, you know, various other aspects that were predominant in the 1960s. The labor movement, by the way, they could do it, but the National Guard had to be called out against the postal workers. General Motors and General Electric workers went on strike during the war while the President was screaming at them and telling them that they were hurting the war effort. They struck anyway. And of course the urban rebellions, the 250 cities that went up in flames, were after all led mainly by workers. They did studies on who the rebels were. They werent 18-year-old kids strung out on crack. The average age was 20, 25, 27, and most of them had jobs. You know, so the reality is more complicated, I think than the stereotype. We must be careful about romanticizing the situations that we put ourselves conveniently, in the middle of everything, so that we appear to be the heroes.
One of your historians, a wonderful wonderful writer here in Chicago, John Hope Franklin, before he died he was interviewed on the radio, and the interviewer said to him: "I guess as you get older you develop a sense of perspective, a sense of history, you know, you mellow out a little bit, you kind of become more patient, you understand the long run of history. And Franklin said, "Hell, no. The older I get the more impatient I get."
My Mom told me when I was 20, Id change. OK, when youre 25, youll change. Or, waitll you get kids, or waitll you have a job, or wait for this I do not want to disappoint anybody, but I aint changed at all. I dont renounce a thing I ever did. I can be self-critical about some of what I did, but I dont renounce any of it. And Im not tired. Actually, Im not tired because I didnt have those kind of expectations in the 1960s.
My path, if you want to talk about that, you know, I think it was a combination of things. I think it was optimism, combined with when you lie to somebody, and you lie to them and you lie to them and you lie to them, thats what makes people snap. And thats I think what turned liberals into radicals in the 1960s. It was being lied to again and again and again. In an indirect way maybe one of the more profound books was an utterly non-political "The Catcher in the Rye", with Holden Caulfield. Which I read a dozen times, I had no idea what the hell it was about, and I kept on re-reading it, and I still didnt understand it. I just somehow, some way, it was speaking some truth. I still didnt know what the point of it was. There were no Cliff Notes, I couldnt figure it out, there was no Internet, I couldnt read some professors notes from the University of California at Los Angeles to find out how he interpreted it. None of that. I didnt know what it was, but I realized years later that it was talking about the phoniness, the lies, and the lie was, that you were the US of A, the greatest, most wonderful nation in the world, and they were fighting people who were trying to vote, and the government was dropping bombs and people were being burned alive in their skin, and they were lying, and lying, and they were not even good liars, and we caught them in their lies again and again, and after awhile it was kind of like, you know, once someone lies to you enough times, they dont exist anymore, they just dont exist, its like, you know, like if your boyfriend or girlfriend lies to you enough times, after awhile you say, OK, which Ricky is it, the Ricky who says this, or the Ricky who says that, or is it the Ricky who, I dont know, whatever! I dont know what Ricky, I dont know what America is any more. We didnt know what America was anymore. All we knew was that we had to stop the damn war, that we had to do something to stop the massive, massive crush of racism.
The Old Left, I think, I think the Old Left did more in the Civil Rights movement than people realize, but they did it in indirect ways and they were superseded pretty quickly by the middle 1960s, and that, generally speaking, most of the Old Left played a conservative role conservative in terms of action, compared to what most of us were trying to do.
My own particular path I really dont want to talk about myself but I was at the University of Wisconsin. My girlfriend badgered me, no pun intended, into going there (I really didnt mean that, I swear) into going there. She wasnt going there, but she badgered me into going there. And that was an incredible experience in the 1960s, it was astounding. And I started out majoring in Physics, and after getting on academic probation I knew that I had to put myself into the struggle to end the war. I didnt care about anything else. I got my Bachelors in Philosophy because you needed the fewest credits for that. I was on academic probation till the semester before I graduated. And we did everything from blocking draft boards to trying to petition against Dow Chemical and anything we did to stop the war. OK. Well two minutes, OK Seriously, when I graduated I knew I had to work full-time for the movement. I moved to Boston and was a chapter organizer for SDS. And I worked with a lot of people, including I worked with PLP, and Ill say flat-out that none of these groups were as monolithic as everybody thinks. There were all kinds of people in all these groups, some of whom were very mechanical, and some of whom werent. You know, but what I saw in SDS was an incredible amount of confusion.
Going into my memory was one situation at an SDS convention in 1968 when one group got up, led by the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, denounced PLP as being Stalinist, and all of the national office people applauded. And Steve Halliwell from the national office got up and quoted from Stalin and talked about how PLP was betraying Stalins true message. And I did in fact see some members of the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers no, Steve Halliwell or somebody denounced PLP for not adhering to Stalins line on the national question or something like that , and I saw the anarchists getting up and applauding .At that point I said to myself, "Theres something really unprincipled going on here." You know.
Which isnt to say that PLP walked on water either, in those days. But I think its too easy to resort to the kind of stereotypes that might appeal to young people today, stereotypes about robots invading, and all that other stuff. [NOTE: Tim Wohforth had said: "By 1968, the SDS national leadership faced the invasion of the Progressive Labor Party body-snatchers." GF] It was a movement, it was a struggle, people from all different political persuasions were using anything they could to fight to bring the system down. So I traveled. And the movement I saw was not the same as the movement that some of the people on this panel with me saw, we all saw different pieces of it. But I traveled to dozens and dozens of campuses and I saw it was mostly working-class people, in fact, in the movement. We had sit-ins, we blocked army recruiters. You dont know what fear is until youve been stopped at 2 oclock in the morning by police in a really abandoned area of Flint, Michigan, and they say "Open the trunk", and you open the trunk, and theres a copy of well, after the SDS split we tried to keep SDS going for awhile but it was very hard there was a newspaper that had on the front cover of it a picture of Black Panther Party people in a shoot-out with the police, and a headline that said people had a right to defend themselves from the police. So the cops are standing around there and they take this out of the trunk and theyre looking at me. And I was going to say something like, "Yea, somebody gave me that". But the problem was I had 4000 copies of it in the trunk of my car. So it was a little bit hard. So I think they were messing with me. In any case let me summarize, because I think were running out here.
I think that if we want to talk about the decline of that movement, I think there were five things. First, the world left movement I have no problem with the word communist because Marx had no problem with it. He didnt call it the "Socialist Manifesto"; he didnt call it the "Social-Democratic Manifesto"; he didnt call it the "Liberal Manifesto". So I kinda like it. I was a utopian communist. I think most people in the world are. But I wasnt real political when I was young.
But I think that the Left is in much worse shape than people realize the revolutionary Left is. I have no hope for the reformist Left. I think the process of capitalism leads to fascism and to rivers of blood. Rivers of blood. And I dont think theres a way to avoid that. I wish there was a way to avoid it, but theres no way to avoid it. I dont hope for it; Im not trying to bring it on; Im just telling you that anybody who thinks they can cross that river of blood without getting bloody, doesnt understand history. So I do think that we have to face that. And I think the world left movement actually began its decline probably in the 1950s. And it had that burst in the 60s of optimism. but now we see Vietnam welcoming Wal-Mart, and China welcoming Wal-Mart. And as a world movement its weak. There are scattered movements here and there that show some positive hope, but Im not particularly optimistic about Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez either, at this point.
The second thing that really hurt the movement, I think, was that any process, when it reaches a limit, has to either transform, or be twisted and distorted. And the white campus movement reached its limit by 196869. It had to reach out to the working class. When I say "working class", a lot of people never understood what that word meant. It didnt mean Archie Bunker, and lets tell a white worker we want to give him money. It meant reaching out to the community as a whole, much of which was black and Latino, by the way. The failure to do that, the failure to fight racism, the giving in to separatism, really, really hurt.
Third, of course, was drugs. The culture of Woodstock actually hurt the movement. The Beatles tailed the movement, they didnt build the movement, and it weakened it, and the bosses found ways to get in on that.
Fourth was probably the elections, the defeat of Nixon, and the illusory feeling that people had power in this country.
Fifth was give me 30 seconds and I swear Ill stop fifth was, with all due respect to Marks self-criticism, the devastating impact of the Weather Underground on the movement cannot ever be overestimated, in terms of the impact that it had. To go to a group of steelworkers in Pittsburgh and pass out a leaflet to them about why they should oppose the war the day after some woman from the Weather Underground took her blouse off and ran through the high school saying, "Free yourselves! Free yourselves!" Or, thank God that nail bomb didnt go off at Fort Dix. Because if it had gone off at Fort Dix and they had to drag the bodies of dead women out and dead men out, we wouldnt have to worry about police repression against us. The masses of the United States would have beat the crap out of us any time, wherever we were.
So I would just say that the movie with the worst title and the best movie ever, the ratio of good movie to bad title, was the most rented DVD of all time, and thats "the Shawshank Redemption", because there he waited and he waited, but he wasnt waiting, he was planning. Marxs "Old Mole." You dont have to choose between running and hiding, and turning the other cheek, versus standing out there as a martyr. You can also just take your shot, build the movement.
Theres a lot going on today for change. Were building a movement on my campus. We make so many mistakes I cant even recount them. But were involved in everything from opposing police brutality four of my recent students are High School teachers in the inner city now, trying to work with youth. Its possible to build a movement. But we really need to have a long-term view. We cant believe the revolutions going to happen tomorrow. We have to expect to take some losses. And we should never think the world revolves around us. But never for a minute give up the understanding that the system does have to come down, and it is not going to come down through elections and through countercultural institutions. Its also not going to come down through terrorism. So theres no easy way out of it. Its a long struggle. And Ill stop now.
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AS: You know, a common line in blues songs is "Im laughing to keep from crying."But the other side of it is no matter how much you kill the grass in the cracks of your sidewalk it keeps coming up again. I saw Mount St. Helens after the volcano. I was in Yellowstone sometime after the huge fire and damn, the flowers keep coming back. Life asserts itself. Life always asserts itself. People assert themselves. So I dont want anybody to assume that I was taking a negative tack. The person who brings you bad news, the doctor or nurse who says to you that you are about to go through a really horrible painful time but we think you can make it, thats the optimist. The person who says, "Its July, but lets have a Christmas party for you," thats the person whos saying youre not going to live to see December.
And so I think that imagination means understanding, face to face, that the world can be a whole lot worse than you ever imagined. Any of you here whos had somebody close to you die knows what Im talking about. For a time, youre afraid to walk, because you dont even know if the floor is going to melt oout under your feet. Well, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 300,000 people that died in five minutes time. If you took those bodies and laid them end-to-end, without an inch in between the space it would stretch all the way from here Milwaukee and back. And thats what happened in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Things can be much, much worse than you can ever imagine.
The other side of it, though, is that things can be much, much better than you could ever imagine. And I think that I ry not to spend so much time on the first point, because I think that reality is going to show people that anyhow. So I think its more important to grasp the second point. The most powerful weapon that oppressors have is convincing people that what exists is natural: whiteness is natural, America is natural, the peacefulness of America is natural. The fact that the United States as one-fourth of all the people in prison in the world are in prison in the United States. 10 million people are in jail in the world, a quarter of them are in jail in the United States. Thats part of the river of blood. The Congo, Sub-Saharan Africa is our Auschwitz.
We have a different kind of Auschwitz today, but its the same thing. The death, the destruction, the pain, the hardship, the disease. Then theres slow rivers of blood. The obesity. The fact that your generation maybe not University of Chicago students, because you know about these things, you pay attention to them but you see it everywhere, that people are going to be having diabetes massively in this country in their early 40s and early 50s as a result of alienation, as a result of people not knowing how to cope with a sense of powerlessness. These are all things that we have to face, all things that we have to deal with.
And I think that as capitalism declines, if you want to look at history, the U.S. is in decline. Period. Either it will go the way England did, which is with massive violence through somewhat gradually, or it can go the way Nazi Germany did, which is throwing bombs this way and that way. I am not happy about saying this, but I think it is more likely the U.S. will go the second way. But we may be able to have some impact on that. I dont believe we can stop a third world war, but I think that we can make a difference as to whether that war kills 60 million or 600 million. You might say: "What the hell, 60 million, thats still so many!" But for those who dont die, theres a pretty big difference. So we have got to do what we can, as far as thats concerned.
But I just think that despair is a very, very powerful weapon, and I think that we have to fight against that at all costs. And how do I fight against it? Well, theres three ways to avoid that unrealistic sense of despair that poses as being realistic. One way is to have close friends that try to keep you straight and honest. More importantly, though, related to that, is that youve got to know some history. Youve got to understand that there have been zigs and zags in history before. That after the night comes the day. That the Nazis were defeated, although at tremendous, tremendous human cost. People never imagined it.
And the third one is you have to have links to real live working-class people. You know, I stumbled into college teaching. I was an activist. My friends said: "Oh, you like to talk, go get a job teaching." And I knew Id never finish my Ph.D., but somehow I did, I still dont know how that happened. But, you know, I took a job, next to Gary, Indiana, You want to see rivers of slow-moving blood, go to Gary, IN. Or, for that matter, you could talk to one of my ex-students who is teaching over at Woodrow Wilson High School, where she would tell me every so often about another one of her students who was killed. So I think that if you have ties to real people.
My brother lives in Boulder, Colorado, and actually I was in Santa Fe last weekend and he keeps on saying: "You should move out here, its so beautiful here." And I say, "Im never moving out there." He says: "Why not?" And I say, "Because Ill sit in a chair all day looking at the mountains." I say, "Ill only move out there if I can bring all my friends from Gary. And all my friends from the South Side of Chicago, if youll let me bring people from Pilsen, from Middle Village. Then Ill move out there."
Because heaven is not in the things, its in the people. When people say: "Oh, youre never going to live to see it," what I say back is, "First of all" it meaning a communist world, whatever it is, I agree with him on that, who knows when it will be and what it will be but see, if you say that Im only going to do it if I know Im going to see it, then youre pissing on the graves of millions of people who went out and fought over the last hundreds of years. Youre pissing on Frederick Douglass, youre pissing on everybody, youre saying: "What a bunch of fools! They fought, and they didnt get to see it!"
The other side of it is that if you live your life the right way and you keep the struggle going and you surround yourself and keeping the struggle going does mean getting involved in reform struggles. I wasnt saying "Pick up the gun today." But you get involved in those struggles, you do what Lenin, in one of his wiser moments called "schools for communism". These struggles become ways for people to learn what the system is made of, and how to organize against it. You do have to be involved in these day-to-day struggles, because its no good to stand outside and shout at people and just pass out flyers.
But, on the other hand, we ought to meet people where theyre at, but we dont want to just sit down next to them and say, "Hey, what up?" Meet people where theyre at in order to struggle with people and move them. But I do think that if you live your life as best as you can, you are seeing it, youre seeing it as much as anyone will ever see it in the future. Thats all I have to say.
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Q: The New Left, and the new New Left, seems to be inherently marginal in its politics. It seems people are saying that if we work completely outside the system, thats a big red flag to working class groups. But how do we negotiate the fact that working within the system restricts the tactics available to us?
AS: Well, thats the most important question, but I really believe that theres not a fundamental, impossible gap to bridge, as the phrase is here. I think that thats a very insightful point, and that was certainly true in the 1960s. Its one thing to get kicked out of Harvard or Columbia, or Yale, or Princeton. Its another thing to get beaten on the head by police on the East side of Detroit and then face 20 years in jail. But I do believe that getting involved in local struggles, having your life directly linked to people, and I dont like the rhetoric of privilege thats used a lot, in a sense because it can become very moralistic, give up your privilege.
But I would say people should certainly risk, at all costs, risk what they have. Two of my students who became activists then went to Iraq to organize inside the army. I would also say that part of is, we have to confront the fact that we do have to eventually build a movement that isnt necessarily all out there. That doesnt necessarily mean collectives that are hiding guns in the basement or anything, and fantasizing about this and that. But realistically speaking there were co-ops in Italy, and then they were smashed. There were all kinds of communes, and alternative institutions, and thises and thats, and they smashed them.
So the question I think the real question for our era -- and I think that your generation is going to see a much, much more horrible life than my generation saw, I really believe that the question is really the question of leadership. And there are two aspects to that. If we say there shouldnt be any leadership at all, or it should be a weak leadership in order to keep it from becoming bureaucratized, all that that will do is allow rotten leadership to dominate. So the real paradox is how can we have a small, cohesive, collective leadership? You have to have that. If you say you dont want it, its like nature hates a vacuum problem somebodys going to be the leader. The problem with anarchism isnt that there shouldnt be a free society, its that the biggest bullies will beat the crap out of everybody, and theyll run things anyway, unless you abolish classes.
So I think the struggle to develop leadership that is beholden to the people that they claim to represent. And I think thats a lot of the spirit of the Cultural Revolution, which nobodys spoken about today actually, though it was one of the most inspiring things of the 1960s, with all the weaknesses and all the problems. Its not easy. I think that gets resolved in practice. I think we have to build new ones, you know, like the Whittier struggle some of my students were involved in that. You get involved in these reform struggles but not simply to win the reform. You do it in order to learn and to teach, and to teach and to learn, and to try to build collectives and built movements that eventually will last. Frederick Douglass was once three years old, Lenin once spilled his milk, Ho Chi Minh washed dishes. In other words, its not like all of this stuff was inevitable. There clearly were people who you had no idea. Ive been teaching long enough to know you have an impact on people, and then you have no idea of the impact you had on them until years later.
So thats why I think the optimism is whats key, but I think that people who are isolated from real live people in struggle, I think they tend to get cynical. I think that despair and cynicism are a luxury of the middle class. Its a luxury of intellectuals. Because people in the Congo, they do not have the luxury of being cynical. They have to fight for their lives every minute of every day.
Q: Regarding the organizations you worked for in the 1960s, do you think their failures were necessary, or in some way unavoidable? Why? What were the failures, exactly?
AS: I think "necessary" is like "inevitable."All truths are probabilistic. Thats an important concept. I like to use the term "probably inevitable". My sociology friends
Q. What were the failures?
AS: I probably ran through them really fast. Ill say it again. Number one was the Left itself, worldwide, was in a state of retreat, despite the fact that there was a revolutionary upsurge in 68, in fact it was more like a death rattle, when you look at the underlying processes that led to the collapse in China and Russia were already in place. Thats number one. And then, I dont know that it was completely defeated. I mean, Im still here. These guys [on the panel] are all trying to do something. There are countless, hundreds, thousands of people became schoolteachers, social workers, and community organizers out of that, who did at least try to spread some aspects of Marxs ideas, whether or not it was always self-conscious.
So but I do think that, if I could go back in time and change some things with respect to the white Left movement, I would say the struggle against racist oppression specifically, and to me, the worker-student alliance that was the term bandied about uniting the students with the working class as a whole. And the movement was really inadequate and weak with respect to that. So I think that would have been important to change. But other than that, theres ebbs and flows. You know, its interesting, even in physics theres an understanding that every process reaches a limit. The second law of thermodynamics: everything dissipates. But theres one small part of it that rises to a higher level. And you see that thats true in plant and animal evolution. Its actually true in quantum mechanics. I think its true in social movements. So the question is can you nurture that small part that is more advanced and develop it, so that when these moments come that he [Osha] talked about, we have the ability, and if you have a base among common people to take advantage of those moments. Thats what I would say in the short term. It was a failure of the campus movement to reach out to the community. That was the internal weakness. Although, I think that as far as why it shrunk, that was just that was going to happen with the world situation the way it was.
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AS: I think you need to meet people where theyre at, but not just sit down with them. And so therefore the not just sitting down with them means people do have to understand science as good as possible, as well as possible. And that means understanding the process of Marxs ideas, which to me parallel those of Darwin. They are historically useful within the framework anyway, not necessarily true for all time. But they are very, very important and valuable, and the concepts need to be understood.
On the other hand, its possible to use different words. The big question is always, when is using a different word the concept, or eviscerating it completely. So thats always a question. But as far as do the concepts and categories of Marx still hold today, I would say for the most part they do, because Marxism is a living science. Any time anybody says, "Well, Marx was a dogmatist who didnt believe in the importance of ideas," I always remind them that, "He wrote 50 books by hand. So he obviously thought ideas were pretty important. And he was more creative in his, you know, the famous cry: "Im not a Marxist!" So he saw it as a living thing, as well. He wasnt trying necessarily to write truth for a million years. But I think his truth still holds today, for the most part. His concepts, his analysis, may be a better word. His science.