MY POLITICAL ACTIVISM began in 1964 when I passed out SDS leaflets: “better a crook than a fascist” [Johnson over Goldwater]; it effectively ended by the late 1980s. Although I consider my scholarly research and writings and especially my films to be a continuation of my earlier activism, I can’t speak to activists as one in the trenches. Yet today’s political moment is too charged to remain silent.
If the following abbreviated political memoir has any relevance today, it is to underscore just how much any real advance in grassroots movements for radical social change depends on a favorable political environment and on broad alliances, however unpalatable the latter may be to activists on the ground.
When I was 19, I watched the radical Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] implode in Chicago, wracked by insane levels of sectarianism – the Worker Student Alliance faction supported Albania and China alone and the Revolutionary Youth Movement also pledged solidarity to North Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba.
I remember looking around the vast hall inside in the Chicago Coliseum and trying to read other faces. Were there others who were also repulsed and demoralized by that spectacle? Surely there were but we were atomized and largely voiceless.
At the time I sharply defined myself against sectarianism, that is placing the interests of an organization or party above the movement as a whole, or, I would add today, the immediate needs of society’s non-elite. However, in retrospect I realize that I was not immune from a different kind of that political disorder, one marked by a very strong bias against electoral politics.
Italian “Hot Autumn”
In 1971, my participation in a radical communications collective in Turin, Italy reinforced that perspective. Thousands of Fiat workers participated with varying degrees in the extra-parliamentary left [especially Lotta Continua] as they battled the company and the state.
Through countless wildcat work stoppages and marches within the 50,000-worker plant, they gained impressive control over the production process and dramatically improved their quality of life.
Politics infused workers’ lives. I vividly recall debates in bars about workers’ councils, workers’ control and Gramsci, conducted by Southern migrants with little formal education. More significantly I attended meetings of hundreds of workers that signaled a fundamental change: they excluded non-workers [I had some kind of left journalist dispensation].
In order to avoid any form of sectarianism they asked people to not speak in the name of the extra parliamentary left or the PCI (Italian Communist Party). In sum, they created what they called the autonomous workers’ movement [movimento operaio autonomo], one they believed would eventually create a new, non-authoritarian, egalitarian society propelled by worker-controlled industry.
Ever since then, I have carried with me the image of Fiat workers democratically charting that course.
Two years later, when I returned for a brief visit, I found my Fiat worker friends, Antonio and Achille, to be utterly demoralized. They had been fired from their jobs and their nascent autonomous workers’ organization had disintegrated. [Later incarnations of autonomismo had little to do with their origins.]
As the world economic crisis hit their group and others on the extra-parliamentary left had difficulty responding, while maintaining their intransigent posture against the PCI and its union allies.
Power of Reformism
In reflecting back on 1971, that inspiring time in Turin, I realize I did not grasp the broader context. First, a social revolution wasn’t on the agenda of a country marked as it was by such extremely uneven development. However impressive the consciousness and actions of the Fiat workers, the working class in large-scale industry formed a relatively small minority of the Italian population.
More significantly, the PCI was the largest communist party outside the Soviet bloc, remarkably strong and independent, winning over 25% of the votes in a multiparty system in 1968 and 1972, reaching over 34% in 1976 [the Christian Democrats won 38%]. The neo-fascist right and the CIA were engaged in all manner of attacks against it as well as against the extra-parliamentary left.
The PCI was a reformist party hostile to any kind of autonomous workers’ movement, and of course to the extra parliamentary left. At the same time, the autonomous workers’ movement was too weak to resist the company and state onslaught.
Faced with similar neo-fascist, business, U.S. and Italian governmental assaults, a left alliance might well have withstood them, at least better than their bitter antagonisms, which culminated in grisly fashion at the end of the decade when the far left violently combatted PCI militants.
Yet at the time, talk of a left alliance against fascism and the right would have been heretical. This despite the fact that if you were walking down the streets of Turin and someone from behind called out to you “compagno” [comrade] and you turned your head, a fascist with brass knuckles would smash your face. They didn’t care if you were PCI or Lotta Continua.
After returning from Italy I spent a number of years working in the U.S. labor movement, first as a self-appointed rank and file organizer and then as union organizer.
My experiences as a rank and file organizer in a UAW construction products plant were mixed at best. I was entirely cut off from what remained of the left. That was a conscious decision as I felt that the left was either lost in sectarianism or had “sold out.”
Yet operating alone had severe limitations, primarily a lack of communication with others involved in similar work. I saw my job as one of listening to the other workers on breaks, attending union meetings and voicing concerns that for one reason or another, members would not raise.
Circa 1972, New Jersey, this factory already had a globalized work force -– I remember Jamaicans, Cubans, Argentinians and Italians, and my language abilities helped out somewhat.
In retrospect, I don’t think that the diversity of the work force was a deterrent to organization, perhaps because there were no clearly defined ethnic groups. I also don’t remember any real racist expressions by white workers, except in the language employed, e.g. “the colored guy.”
Not particularly surprisingly, I found the local leadership uninterested in hearing any alternative perspectives. In 1971, Nixon had decreed wage and price controls. Union and management used what for small firms were guidelines as a rationale for minimal raises.
When I objected to that rationale behind the union bargaining proposal, the vote was close, but my motion failed. Then an older worker with whom I worked closely conveyed a message to me that it would be best for my own good if I quit. Feeling something between an idiot and a coward, I followed their advice.
In early 1977, I started working for the International Garment Workers’ Union [ILGWU]. I was a “colonizer” [I could not believe their obscenely stupid language], sent to work in a sporting goods plant [it produced rubber footballs and sports jerseys] in upstate NY.
I had very little supervision during the initial stages of the organizing drive. After working in the plant for a couple of months I decided to approach some workers to form an organizing committee. In the space of a month, using tried and true tactics of secrecy and trust: trusted workers would recruit people they trusted.
We got over 400 authorizing cards out of some 500 employees. When we presented the cards, the manager was shocked as he had no idea about the organizing effort.
When I conferred with my superiors based in Long Island, they sharply rejected my appeal for an immediate union representation election. One longtime union leader admonished me with two unforgettable phrases: “We never win elections” and “Never trust the workers.”
They ordered me to provoke an unfair labor practices dispute by doing something outlandishly provocative. Although I threw a football near a foreman, he just walked away. The union leadership could not grasp that consultant firms now advised management precisely about the tactics which unions such as the ILGWU had used so successfully in the 1950s and 1960s.
Many months later, long after the union dropped the campaign and sent me to “colonize” another factory, the company, facing no union opposition, resoundingly won the representation election. My futile arguments with the union leadership led not only to my firing, but to placement on a blacklist apparently circulated among unions.
In addition, they blocked all union organizers and union members from talking with me on pain of firing or expulsion. Today the blacklist and order almost seem like a compliment, but at the time I was devastated as clearly the career path that I had chosen for myself was blocked.
At the time, unlike the union leadership, I trusted the people with whom I worked and organized. They engaged in democratic and empowering experiences, not to mention ones that dealt sharp blows against racism and sexism, as the union organizing committee had large numbers of male and female Puerto Ricans and workers of Polish descent.
As in the construction products plant, despite the hierarchical non-democratic framework, the union offered a space for anti-racist resistance without naming it as such. Although far from the workers’ power on the Fiat assembly line, I could see the seed of future democratic possibility.
Although burned by the union leadership and embittered by the experience of personal defeat, I gained an invaluable and wonderful relationship from my time as an organizer: I met my future wife on the factory floor. Her family couldn’t afford to come to the wedding from Costa Rica, and so after I got fired we decided to visit them. We ended up staying for four years.
In July 1979, an old friend invited me to go to Managua to serve as an assistant/ interpreter for a Dutch TV station who was filming the Sandinista triumph and immediate aftermath of the revolution. Although I could write a great deal about those days and more over the three years that we lived in Nicaragua in the 80s and 1990 doing research, I will limit myself to couple of memories and thoughts.
I’ll never forget the faces of so many people revealing the joy of liberation mixed with sorrow for lost love ones. Our crew came across a scene that did not make immediate sense. A hostile crowd of maybe 50 people were milling around outside a small brick building.
Sensing a story, the Dutch producer had me ask for permission to enter. Inside there were four men cowering against a wall, watched over by three armed muchachos (as the Sandinistas were known). One of them, 16 or 17 years old, gun in hand stepped outside and stood in front of the crowd that was shouting “oreja!” “oreja!” (informer) Their angry shouts suggested that they wanted to kill the Somocistas inside the makeshift prison.
The boy mustered his courage and strength to address the crowd: “Look compañeros: we’re trying to create a new Nicaragua and we need a new type of revolution, a humanist revolution. These orejas need to be brought to justice.”
I’ve often wondered where this boy got his voice and whether he signaled a path not taken by the revolution. Was it possible for this incredible, heroic upsurge of impoverished youths, workers, peasants and students to create a humane, non-authoritarian, solidary, democratic society? The muchacho announced that possibility.
I also remember the announcement by the Sandinista leaders in those first days of the Revolution that there would not be elections for at least five years. At the time I thought that was a tactical mistake. In subsequent years, I came to view it as a strategic, highly consequential error.
In reflecting back on the period, it strikes me that the revolutionary imaginary, the utopian egalitarian vision announced in the euphoria of 1979, which I could still catch glimpses of in 1983 when I began my dissertation research, did not have a formal expression on any political agenda. But could such a vision have been incorporated into the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) program?
The FSLN would have been obliged to tolerate the more or less autonomous labor and peasant movements that were blossoming. Similarly, the leadership would have had to accept the yearnings of grassroots militants for the individual or cooperative appropriation of the fruits of proletarian and peasant labor along with the egalitarian spirit that resisted all forms of coercion.
Indeed, the role of the revolutionary state might have been to enforce laws that protected citizens and their property against such popular excesses, but not to thwart the movements themselves. Had the Frente opted to stimulate rather than control the grassroots movements – it would also have swept early elections before Reagan could unleash the Contra War.
The 1981- 90 Contra War of course devastated the impoverished Nicaraguan economy and pushed the government towards increased militarism, at the expense of greater restrictions on individual rights and reduced spending for the highly successful social programs in health and education.
The revolution set in motion social and cultural movements, such as the women’s movement, that were in constant tension with the revolutionary government. Although the level of political repression, in most parts of the country, was never a fraction of the dystopian vision promoted by the Reagan administration, there was an ideological rigidity that certainly affected the expression of dissent and unnecessarily restricted the autonomy of worker and peasant organizations which had fought so hard and courageously against the Somoza dictatorship.
Such control can be envisioned in two anecdotes. In Chichigalpa, a town dominated by the massive sugar plantation/mill complex, the Ingenio San Antonio, a resident walks up to the Sandinista mayor and offers a list of problems in his barrio, ranging from insufficient water to power outages.
The mayor’s response: “yes you have a problem: you’re a contra.” Now he didn’t act on this accusation, and that is important; but he certainly alienated his constituent and probably scared him.
In 1989 I talked to an old veteran of the campesino movement in Chinandega. He commented, “The Sandinistas understand “people’s property” differently.” He was referring to the government policy of creating state farms on expropriated land.
For Juan Suazo, who for decades had fought landlords and the Somocista state for land to the tillers, state farms did not translate as people’s property. The Chinandeganos who had fought alongside the Sandinistas after ten years silently broke with them, angered that their goals embodied in their own histories were simply not taken seriously.
It strikes me that the Chinandegan example is not atypical: there are inevitable disjunctions between national level movements and local grassroots organizations.
More specifically I suggest that the organized left tended to understand the local subjects and their social experiments as parts of a universalizing program and discourse. They often failed to grasp the local realities, because of their immersion in a strategy focused on the national or the international.
When I was doing my research in the unbearably hot Chinandegan countryside, I pushed on with a combination of hubris and naivete, believing that my work would make a difference. I convinced myself that once the FSLN leadership understood the autonomous roots and historical significance of the campesino movement it would shift ground and begin to afford that movement greater autonomy.
I wrote a report in 1989 that synthesized my research and urged the FSLN to reengage with campesinos and recognize their need and their right to create their version of people’s land. Otherwise they would face defeat in the 1990 elections. Although the report reached leadership circles it was certainly not acknowledged, much less acted upon.
Documenting El Salvador
Since then I have continued research in Nicaragua and since 1998 in El Salvador, but my pretensions and expectations have been lowered substantially.
With the hope of reaching audiences in Central America and the United States, I have created documentary films that deal with contemporary Salvadoran history: the 1932 massacre of 10,000 people, mainly Indians; the impact of Liberation Theology on a group of peasants in Morazán during the 1970s; labor struggles in a shrimp port in the seventies and eighties.
All three films, rooted in largely oral historical research, have political relevance without driving home a particular political line or interpretation. Yet they touched on common themes: At different historical moments campesinos and workers experienced non-hierarchical cultural and organizational forms. Following the historian Jay Winter, I call them minor utopias.
In 1931, indigenous peasants and ladino [non-Indian] artisans in western El Salvador broke down rigid social boundaries as they held meetings that became indistinguishable from fiestas as they collectively planned and celebrated social revolution.
In the early 1970s, peasants in the eastern department of Morazán created collective farms, cooperatives and tightly knit Liberation Theology-inspired communities.
In 1979, during a six-week period in which death squads ceased operations under a reformist Junta, workers on coffee, cotton, and sugar plantations, seized nearly a hundred properties and in several cases started running the operations themselves.
These minor utopian experiences ended in tragedy. Most of the participants in the 1931 meeting/fiestas were massacred by the military in January 1932 in response to an abortive Communist-led insurrection.
Those 1970s Liberation-theology inspired communities became targets for the military as did the campesinos involved in the land occupations. In 1980, military-tied death squads executed over 8,000 civilians suspected of “subversion,” most of them snatched off the street and thrown into unmarked cars.
The Left, writ large, conditioned the emergence of these socialist experiments. Yet, in all three cases, the organized left –- specifically the Partido Comunista Salvadoreño, the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo, and the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (three components of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, FMLN) — all failed to acknowledge their emancipatory potential.
In 1931 and 1979, the revolutionary left also refused to ally with a reformist government that had conditioned the grassroots advance and might have forestalled or even blocked the lethal rightist reaction that cost so many lives. The far right, in these and many other cases, aided to varying degrees by splits in the left, defeated those movements, drenching them in blood.
Those failures and tragedies were perhaps not inevitable unless we consider that debilitating sectarianism is an inevitable part of leftist politics.
Unity Against the Right
My earlier activism and research have a common theme. In both dimensions, I observed and experienced the tension between organizations and parties with national pretensions on the one hand, and grassroots movements on the other.
One of the great virtues of leftist grassroots activists is that historically they have been attuned to the immediate necessities of ordinary folks [what academics call the subaltern]. And often they have practiced an ethic of solidarity aimed at helping the largest number of people achieve a reasonable quality of life. Unless tightly wedded to the larger organizations or parties, they do not have to operate under a long-term cost benefit analysis. They can ask: What can materially and spiritually aid our base rather than what will build our party or group?
That autonomy of thought and action is critical, I would say, to any real democratic social and economic change. Piecemeal, ameliorative changes promoted by grassroots activists are of course anathema to a long tradition of leftist thought. Yet that work is always a source of strength and hope.
In that vein, and in light of the pain and suffering that the Trump administration has caused and will continue to do so, I would ask you to at least reconsider a decision to sit out the election. Consider the every-day pain caused by their range of vicious policies from cages for child immigrants, to eliminating overtime pay for millions to food stamp cuts [not yet finalized], let alone his threats to women’s rights, social security and disregard for health care insurance. Consider Trump’s dangerous appeals to white nationalism, however veiled, and how they affect people of color. Consider his outrageous handling of the pandemic and his dismissal of climate change science.
Without any doubt, neoliberalism promoted by the Democratic Party also has had devastatingly negative effects on subaltern sectors of U.S. society and of course overseas. Eight years of the Obama administration helped to create the social-economic conditions for rightist populism.
The question that must be answered is: from what position can neoliberalism be resisted? A Trump-emboldened ascendant populist right wing that promotes racial animosity is not propitious terrain for anti-neoliberal resistance. That the rightist resurgence is international should give us even greater pause.
Neither history nor theory offer ready-made solutions, but some 21st century version of a global popular front against the far right must rise again. Our U.S. slogan might be: “Better Biden than a crook and a fascist!”
to be published November-December 2020, ATC 209