The 1970s: Finally Got the News!

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Charles Williams interviews Brad Duncan

FINALLY GOT THE News explores “the printed legacy of the U.S. radical Left, 1970-79,” combining written reflections from movement participants with over 250 images from radical publications of the period (also displayed in the exhibition of the same name that opened at the Interference Archive in January 2017). Charles Williams interviewed Brad Duncan on behalf of the ATC editorial board in December 2017.

ATC: Can you discuss the origins of your book and the associated exhibition?

Brad Duncan: I’ve been collecting printed materials related to the Left and liberation movements for over 20 years. Part of that was becoming personally connected to dozens of activists and leftists in Detroit where I was living.

Historically Detroit is a major hotbed of the radical movements that I collect, and then add to that all of the socialists of the New Left who moved to Detroit in the early 1970s to engage with labor struggles and the Black liberation movement there.

So in the 1990s I was a young socialist and activist, a voracious reader eager to learn about movement history. Luckily I plugged into a political world where people have boxes of dusty old Marxist pamphlets in their attics and basements.

After a decade of living in Southwest Detroit I moved to Philadelphia about eight years ago, and now I visit East Coast cities looking for radical pamphlets and flyers the way I used to hit Midwestern cities.

Overwhelmingly this old printed material (flyers, newspapers, ephemera, etc.) is donated to me by friends and comrades who are veterans of these movements, often multiple boxes at a time. The collection now has about 15,000 items from leftist movements around the world.

I’m always looking for ways to engage the public with this material, from blogging to doing presentations for classes or political groups. In 2016, I approached Josh MacPhee and Interference Archive, a working archive of social movements materials in Brooklyn, with the idea of doing an exhibition.

The idea was to mount a fairly huge exhibition that looked at many of the main currents of U.S. radicalism in the 1970s through the lens of printed materials like flyers, pamphlets, newspapers and posters, based mainly on material from my personal collection but with some items from Interference Archive’s collection as well.

For example, all the material on anarchism was from Interference Archive. Interference Archive has organized numerous exhibitions using printed materials like posters and flyers to tell stories about social movements and protest, so they’re very experienced with how to organize exhibitions that really connect with the public.

I think the exhibition and book really speaks to this very moment in U.S. history, from Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March. We got so excited planning the exhibition that we decided to make it a 250-page book with over a dozen original contributions from veteran activist-historians.

Each chapter in the book, which is to say each selection of archival items, is introduced by someone with first-hand experience. Dan La Botz and Elly Leary write on the New Left’s turn towards labor organizing, Silvia Federici and Johanna Brenner write on women’s liberation, and Akinyele Umoja writes on Black revolutionary nationalism.

Then at the back of the book I organized this “roundtable” discussion, which features candid historical remembrances from veterans of a wide range of radical groups.

I get great feedback from people who were involved in the 1970s, but I also get very enthusiastic responses from young people who just started calling themselves socialists recently, and see the book as an accessible way to learn about how a previous generation organized around essentially the same issues that we’re facing today.

ATC: The book is organized around several themes encompassing the radical politics of the period, for instance anti-colonialism and the radical turn to the working class. How did you decide on the themes you ended up with?

BD: I think most of the themes were pretty self-evident because they’re the core concepts that all of these groups talked about, right across the spectrum. We also included chapters that looked at specific events so that readers could see a cross-section of examples of how the radical Left related to national events. People could see what the Left did in practice.

The first idea that jumped into my head was the Boston busing crisis, because every left group published material on it and there was also considerable disagreement on the left.

We also did chapters on May Day, Inter­national Women’s Day, and African Liberation Day because these were all annual events that virtually the entire Left related to in one way or another. So flyers for May Day or ALD are very useful for understanding how radical groups were developing, or for that matter collapsing, over the course of the decade.

Art for the Revolution

ATC: What’s your sense of what was most effective in these printed materials, and what were some of the failings or limitations?

BD: I think that some of the visual art did a terrific job communicating urgency and how different political issues were connected.

The image of the woman guerrilla with the baby in her arms and the rifle on her shoulder, which was printed and reprinted in hundreds of these posters and newspapers, communicated so many ideas about colonialism and national liberation, about women’s liberation, about armed struggle, about revolution itself.

Some posters had just that image with no words, but the target audience gets it nonetheless. Or the image of the Chicana textile worker on strike at the Farah pants factory in El Paso, which was also reprinted on hundreds of flyers.

One key task of the radical Left in the early ’70s was to convince people who were opposed to the U.S. war in Vietnam that they should also protest other examples of imperialism and neo-colonialism around the world. I think leftist posters of the 1970s that depicted Angola or South Africa or El Salvador did an incredible job showing how these struggles were connected to Vietnam.

Some of that was the influence of Cuban revolutionary posters, which everyone copied and repurposed, but it was also an outgrowth of the artistic flowering that accompanied the growing radicalism of the late ’60s, including the underground newspaper movement and the Black Arts Movement.

The book includes a number of pieces from Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and Madame Binh Graphics Collective, two groups with roots in the Weather Underground that both emphasized visual art and printmaking as a part of their revolutionary activism. Their posters and magazine covers are just breathtaking.

Lots of young socialists were trying to get involved with labor struggles, which often involved creating radical newsletters for specific workplaces. In some scenarios these publications led to effective agitation and organizing, as one retired autoworker details in the roundtable section of the book, but they could also be ultraleft and out of touch with the workers.

In that sense, shop-floor newsletters allowed Left groups to find out in real time if their politics were resonating. Finally Got the News includes labor activist materials, often hyper-local, from every radical tendency you can think of because every serious organization or party or party-building collective used print media this way.

I think a lot of the Left press suffered from trying to simultaneously be many things to many constituencies. Sometimes when reading through these old Marxist newspapers I’m left wondering who exactly the audience is.

In one article the audience seems to be working-class people who are becoming open to anti-capitalist ideas but who haven’t really radicalized yet, and so the tone of the article is geared towards further politicizing them — meeting people where they are, as they say.

But then on the next page there’s a long, salty polemic about which competitor left groups are actually petite bourgeois traitors, using tons of insider terminology that only veteran leftists could make sense of. Every socialist group had to have a newspaper, but there was a lot of confusion over what to do with it.

ATC: What parts of this legacy of 1970s radicalism do you see as most overlooked in how we typically think about the period?

BD: I was very eager to make sure that a whole chapter of the book looked at Black revolutionary nationalism, specifically the current inspired by the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). I wanted to go into depth about how the idea of Black national self-determination was a key factor in the Black liberation movement, including advocating for an independent state.

Most books about Black liberation in the 1970s have focused on the Black Panther Party, which makes a certain amount of sense considering that was the biggest and most influential organization, but that focus has often downplayed or excluded other Black revolutionary groups.

The chapter “Towards New Afrika” in­cludes flyers from the RNA, founded in Detroit in 1968, and the Afrikan People’s Party, both part of the New Afrikan Inde­pen­dence Movement, alongside materials from groups with slightly differing ideologies but with similar conceptions of Black self-determination.

The Communist League, for example, was a Black majority Marxist-Leninist group, but their widely circulated pamphlet “The Negro National Colonial Question” shows many ideas about Black nationhood in common with New Afrikan activists. The concept of fighting for national self-determination, often directly inspired by Malcolm X, was an ideological current that ran through many of the period’s most important Black liberation organizations and movements.

I really wish more histories of the radical 1970s would pay attention to the RNA, the Afrikan People’s Party, and their comrades. I hope my book inspires people to dig deeper.

Diverse Traditions

ATC: Your own radical roots are broadly in the Trotskyist tradition. How have you been influenced by your deep engagement with the publications and perspectives of other parts of the 1970s Left?

BD: I actually get this question a fair amount, especially from folks who knew me in my late teens and twenties when so many of my closest friends and political mentors were former members of the International Socialists, Socialist Workers Party, and the Trotskyist League.

First of all, I never bought into the idea that one political current, one specific understanding of Marxism, had the market covered in terms of truth. Even my mentors were pretty much over that approach to socialist organizing, as many had been burned by the excesses of the 1970s party-building scene.

The world of Detroit activists that I came up in was always more than Trot­skyists. I knew General Baker pretty well, and other folks from a Communist Labor Party background. I was friends with anarchists as well, from the Fifth Estate folks to Wobblies and antifascists.

I always wanted to know everyone’s history, I always wanted the inside scoop about how their collective came together and then split or burned out. I knew that comrades from all of these traditions and experiences had things to teach me.

I’m always keenly aware — sometimes comically aware perhaps — that a socialist can have a great position on one burning issue and a completely terrible position on another. I can’t tell you how often I’ll be reading a newspaper by a 1970s revolutionary group and be really impressed with their spot-on take on Irish republicanism and women’s liberation, but then I’ll turn the page and discover that their position on the civil war in Angola is so stupid and reactionary that it makes me cringe. No ideological current nails it every time.

I would definitely credit my friendship with Dennis O’Neil with deepening my understanding of the New Communist Movement, the current within the 1970s Marxist Left that strongly identified with the Chinese revolution. When I first met Dennis a little over a decade ago he told me I should come check out his collection of movement literature.

I knew he had been involved with the radical Left since the mid-1960s, was a founding member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and an admitted book fiend. But I was not prepared for the size and scope of his collection! I told Dennis I would love to help him organize it so that activists and scholars could easily access it.

His collection of material related to the New Communist Movement and the Black Liberation Movement is remarkable, and he and I love getting lost in the piles of boxes and discussing all the minute details of all the different Marxist collectives. To say we nerd out would be a major understatement.

Over the years Dennis has connected me to a lot of other NCM veterans who are getting rid of boxes of old literature, which keeps my collection growing. As Dennis always says, I’m his personal archivist.

ATC: Are there things you have been particularly surprised by as you immersed yourself in this history?

BD: My gut impulse is to say I’ve been too immersed for too long to be surprised by anything. But some things can still surprise me, like discovering that a nondescript stack of mimeographed discussion bulletins that I was given years ago were not produced by a small Marxist-Leninist collective in Chicago, but rather by the FBI posing as a small Marxist-Leninist collective from Chicago.

The group was called Ad-Hoc Committee, and for years I assumed they were just a small New Communist Movement organization that not much was known about. But a historian friend of mine was doing research into FBI infiltration of the New Left and discovered that they were in fact a front used to gather information on radical groups.

There aren’t many known copies of their publications, so these phony discussion bulletins are some of my rarest items. It’s kind of scary how good the FBI was at creating a publication that sounded like a real leftist publication. They used all the right terms, at least enough to seem like a small, inexperienced Marxist group. But that’s all they needed to create enough cover to do surveillance and real damage.

ATC: In The Cultural Front, Michael Denning emphasizes how the 1930s radical Left had a transformative impact on the wider U.S. political culture in ways that transcended the sharp political divisions within the Left itself. Do you see your book similarly bringing into focus the collective potency of 1970s radicalism understood as a whole, cutting across the intense factional conflicts of the period?

BD: I’m really glad you mentioned that. The Cultural Front came out when I was in college and was hugely influential on my thinking about how the Left has and can impact the broader culture.

Somehow, above the raucous din of the sectarian disputes of the 1930s and ’40s, ideas about fighting fascism in Spain, freeing the Scottsboro Boys, smashing Jim Crow, and organizing big industrial unions were communicated to millions of people who didn’t know what an Ohlerite or a Shachtmanite was. And I think my book shows some of the ways that the 1970s radical Left was able to do that too.

The idea of African-American workers being at the forefront of revolutionary change was put forward by nearly every Marxist tendency, as illustrated in my book by pamphlets by the International Socialists, Communist Party USA, and Black Workers Congress.

These three groups represented pretty divergent corners of the radical Left, but in 1974 you could look at their newspaper headlines, the artwork on the pamphlets, the slogans on the banners, the general thrust of their propaganda, and they carried the same core message. So I think the idea of the insurgent power of African-American workers, simultaneously representing resistance to racism and class exploitation, was projected into the broader culture beyond the organized radical Left.

I also think the Black Liberation Move­ment and the radical Left were responsible for popularizing the concept of supporting rebel movements in what was then called the Third World.

During the height of the 1950s Red Scare it was very risky to identify with anti-colonial movements, and certainly to publicly support guerrilla groups was out of the question. But in the ’70s people started thinking about that differently.

Wearing a “Free Zimbabwe” button became a part of communicating your political and even cultural identity — and no single Marxist or Pan-African collective or party can claim credit for that.

What Can We Learn?

ATC: I find the imagery and slogans of the posters, leaflets, and periodicals in your book extremely appealing. Of course that was part of the point, to inspire a movement. But do you see any danger in the seductiveness of this political art (and your book), for instance that we might lose our critical distance as we try to understand and learn from the radicalism of the period? Along related lines, do we run the risk of downplaying the importance of the political issues that divided the various strands of the 1970s radical Left?

BD: Although I hear what you’re saying, honestly I think once you start investigating the period in any kind of depth you’ll see that the movement was plagued by divisions, made errors that cost lives, and suffered incredible missed opportunities. And I intentionally recruited authors to write for the book who I know can approach these topics soberly and without hagiography.

For example, the chapter on queer liberation is by Emily Hobson, author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, and she addresses some of the homophobia that was common on the radical Left.

A lot of people forget that some Marx­ists in the 1970s thought that homosexuality was bourgeois and reactionary, or at best a diversion. I intentionally chose material for the exhibition and book that would show how complex the actual legacy is, alongside groups that forthrightly championed queer liberation.

The chapter on anti-colonial struggles talks about how sometimes revolutionaries in the United States had romanticized conceptions of these movements and their internal contradictions, a point which labor activist Bill Fletcher speaks to in his introduction.

Bill gives the example of the Angolan rebel group UNITA, which many U.S. revolutionaries supported until it was discovered it was actually a counterrevolutionary group aided militarily by apartheid South Africa. That incident stung the movement, and shows how rocky the road was for radical activists.

Add to that demoralization the experiences of party-building groups who saw their organizations flounder and sharply decline in the late 1970s. We can’t properly learn from the politics of the 1970s radical Left unless we’re unflinching in our analysis, and that includes all the sectarianism and political mistakes.

That being said, I also meet people who are so hung up on learning about the sectarian divisions and ideological shortcomings that they forget the overarching political themes that made people revolutionaries to begin with. Misremembering cuts both ways.

ATC: Are there any lessons for today’s Left that you would like to end with?

BD: I don’t have any lessons, but I have a very clear message: save all the printed or physical items you pick up over the course of your activism. Flyers at demonstrations, signs you and your friends made, buttons that were handed out, anything — especially since there’s so much less print these days.

Those people who kept their old flyers and gave them to me years later are in the minority. Most participants never kept any of those flyers, because ultimately they were organizing tools meant to mobilize people for specific events. So they’re by definition ephemeral, which is why almost no one keeps them, which makes studying the history of radical movements more difficult.

We know that our enemies want to erase this history. So do your part for people’s history and don’t throw away a damn thing.

March-April 2018, ATC 193