A proletarian Thanksgiving

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sat Nov 25 13:40:00 MST 1995


I celebrated Thanksgiving Day with Jon and Nancy and their 
two young sons in Troy, New York, a hard-scrabble, mid-
sized city near Albany, the state capital. I had not seen him 
since the mid-seventies when we were both members of the 
Socialist Workers Party. He and Nancy, whom I had never 
met, had dropped out of the SWP, as had I. We spent the 
day trying to piece together what had happened to the party 
and ourselves. We also talked about what prospects 
socialism now had.

Troy is an old mill-town whose desolate red-brick 
nineteenth century textile mills and tenements evoked 
Edward Hopper paintings. There were no people on the 
downtown streets except for the occasional, solitary, silver-
haired shopper. Troy, as most of the cities clustered around 
the Hudson River, thrived in the early part of the century. 
As the mills moved south, these cities aged and decayed.

Troy still had a raffish charm. Director Martin Scorsese 
used the downtown as a backdrop for his film "Age of 
Innocence". Scorsese found few changes necessary to have 
Troy stand in for the New York of the 1890's. His film crew 
put some antique signs up on Troy's downtown store-fronts 
and this satisfied the usually demanding director. The City 
Council left the signs up on the streets where the filming 
took place as a tourist attraction.

Jon had tracked me down through the Internet where I had 
become some sort of personality for better or worse. Not 
only was I getting e-mail from long-lost friends and 
comrades, I was also getting the occasional anonymous 
flame from places as remote as the Cybercafe, a hashish bar 
in Amsterdam with Internet connections. Someone stoned 
on hash once sent me a message, "Have a lousy day, you 
shitty clown."

I met Jon in 1971. He had just graduated from the 
University of Vermont and arrived at the Boston branch 
where I functioned as educational director. The Vietnam 
War had radicalized him and he spent his senior year 
devouring huge quantities of Marx. He had also become a 
cultural rebel. He galivanted around campus in cape and 
sword. The avant-garde theater inspired this get-up more 
than guerrilla warfare.

I accepted Jon with open arms since I had traveled through 
bohemia myself in the mid 1960's, dabbling in Beat poetry, 
Zen Buddhism and Existentialism.

The powerful student and women's liberation movements of 
the early '70s swept up the Boston branch and tossed it about 
like a leaf in a hurricane. Of the forty or so women in the 
branch, more than half had declared in favor of lesbianism 
including my girl-friend. This was fine with most of the men 
in the branch, including me, because it seemed revolutionary 
at the time. Jon, five lesbians, including my ex-girlfriend, 
and I traveled to the 1971 national conference of the party 
in a Volkswagen microbus. We decided to make a detour 
through Niagara Falls where we delighted in shocking 
honeymooners by flaunting our disregard for conventional 
dress and behavior. In the 1980's all of these lesbians, 
except my ex-girlfriend, returned to monogamous 
heterosexuality and became mothers. As Heraclitus once 
said, nothing is permanent but change.

Jon was a librarian but, complying with the party's "turn," 
went into industry in the late 1970's. He never turned back. 
He was a bus-driver, then a machinist, and now worked as a 
diesel mechanic in the Conrail repair shop in Albany. Nancy 
was an electrician with Mohawk power and lighting 
company. Lifting heavy equipment had added bulk to Jon's 
frame. His short-hair, mustache and beer belly made him 
indistinguishable from any Con Edison or NY Telephone 
company men you could see on the streets of New York. 
Jon did not affect this "proletarian" look. This was no 
collegiate cape and sword. It was the real thing.

Appearances, I learned, were not always reliable. Jon told 
me that one of his co-workers had never been to college, 
but was a big fan of "minimalist" short-story writer 
Raymond Carver and the Emerson String Quartet. The 
worker was trying to drag Jon to a concert in Albany to 
hear them play. Jon spent most evenings nowadays 
watching Seinfeld or surfing the Internet, and confided to 
me that he was less than enthusiastic about concerts 
nowadays. The job and the kids left him exhausted.

Jon and Nancy lived in a pleasant, two-story house with 
porch in a working-class neighborhood. The living-room 
had a "lived in" look. I was glad to see no African National 
Congress or Cuban posters on the walls. Clenched fists 
might spoil my appetite for turkey.

As the turkey sat baking in the oven, we sat and talked 
about old times while Jon occasionally tossed another log 
into the fireplace. His dog, a good-natured mutt, was flopped 
out in front of the fire while their two cats chased each 
other from room to room. His two sons popped into the 
living-room every hour or so to check out the adults. The 
six-year old could not find it within himself to walk between 
one location and another. He either skipped, hopped or ran 
at a break-neck pace. He accompanied each step with ear-
splitting shouts of "hey-hey-hey" or "powee-zowee".

Jon and I went about our discussions while the kids 
intervened after a fashion.

I would be saying something in the vein of, "So what Lenin 
was trying to do with Iskra...."

Jon would break in, "Darryl, don't crack the nutshells on the 
carpet. (I'm sorry, Louis, just keep going.) Reece, you won't 
have any appetite for dinner if you keep eating that candy."

Was I cut out for fatherhood, I wondered? Probably not.

When dinner was ready, we sat down and stuffed ourselves. 
I had become a vegetarian and after we returned to the 
living-room to continue our discussions, indigestion 
attacked me mercilessly. My stomach went on general strike 
against the occupying army of turkey and mashed potatoes. 
I promised myself if I ever attended a thanksgiving dinner 
again, I would insist on tofu.

Jon and Nancy were members of the Albany branch that the 
SWP dissolved in the mid-1980's. They had just moved into 
the house when the national office of the SWP decided to 
transfer people out of Albany. It wanted to dispatch these 
troops and others to new sites in the mid-west. It was the 
aftermath of the ill-fated P-9 meatpackers strike in Iowa and 
the SWP leadership wanted to go where the "action" was. 
The party leaders themselves, who had never seen the inside 
of a factory or office, were always trying to pick out the 
place on the map where the "opportunities" were most 
favorable. This approach had turned a self-confident group 
of 2000 into a shell-shocked cult of 400 hard-core 

Jon and Nancy, with their two kids and a new house, were 
simply not ready to drop everything and leave town. They 
turned in their resignation. Jon considered himself 
sympathetic to the party while Nancy shared my view that it 
was a hopeless sect. I looked forward to her participation in 
our fireside chat.

Jon was not entirely happy with what had become of the 
party, however. He believed that a mass-based labor party 
was necessary and wanted to work with something called 
"Labor Party Advocates", a formation of trade unionists 
around the country initiated by long-time Machinist's Union 
leader Tony Mazzochi. Mazzochi had been arguing for 
years that both the Democrats and Republicans were parties 
of the bosses and that workers needed a party based on the 
unions to fight them politically.

Jon thought this was a good idea but received no 
encouragement from the SWP. Even though he was no 
longer a member, he felt compelled to follow the lead of the 
Militant, the party newspaper. It warned that the Labor 
Party Advocates had a secret agenda to pressure the 
Democrats from the left rather than taking on the capitalist 
system itself. Such ultraleftism troubled Jon. After all, he 
argued, there is never any mass movement that does not to 
some degree embrace reformist illusions.

We had both been around when Democratic Party loyalists 
had formed the Vietnam Moratorium in order to channel 
antiwar sentiment into support for Democratic Party dove 
politicians like Eugene McCarthy. We did not allow the 
Vietnam Moratorium to take this path unchallenged, 
however. The SWP participated in the Moratorium and 
pushed it to the left. The successful Moratorium 
demonstrations of 1971 were factors that helped to 
persuade the United States ruling class that the war in 
Vietnam faced insurmountable domestic opposition.

Why would the SWP turn its back on something like an 
incipient Labor Party today, he wondered?

The answer was simple in my view. The SWP had 
degenerated into an ultraleft sect that was indistinguishable 
from the Spartacist League. No mass movement was pure 
enough for them. They were content to sit on the sidelines 
and wag their fingers at every "petty-bourgeois" movement 
that passed it by.

He tended to agree with me, but thought that the party 
would wake up when a new radicalization emerged. The 
pressure of events would rectify the wayward vanguard. I 
argued that the SWP had been sectarian at birth and was 
simply existing in its most normal state currently.

Nancy then stepped in. Jon was uncomfortable with cutting 
old ties according to her. He did not want to criticize the 
party because this would be too much like blasphemy. I 
discovered from her that Jon's family had belonged to the 
Pentacostal Church in Vermont and went to services four 
times a week when he was a kid. He was speaking in 
tongues when he was ten years old.

His father was a religious zealot who started with 
Pentecostal Christianity and then had moved on to 
Episcopalianism. He left Episcopalianism in disgust when 
they began to liberalize the service. He was now receiving 
catechism in the Catholic Church in his eighties. This man 
was always looking for the pure faith and hated apostasy. 
Don't ever argue theology with him, Nancy warned, he's 
more stubborn than a Trotskyist.

Not only did Jon retain the ties of an old worshipper to the 
party, his closest political co-thinker in the area had 
remained an at-large member of the party. Jon had no desire 
to fight with this factory worker named Larry, who was as 
stubborn in his dedication to SWP orthodoxy as Jon's father 
was to whatever church he belonged to at the time. Larry 
was as ultraleft as they came. Someone described him in the 
following manner. If he was a in box-car filled with people 
on their way to a concentration-camp, Larry would argue 
that things are actually looking favorable! Why would the 
capitalists resort to such desperate measures unless they 
were afraid of the working-class movement?

Nancy and I continued to hammer away at Jon, while he 
sank deeper and deeper into his overstuffed recliner. We 
could only hope that a rising mass movement would shake 
him out of his thralldom to a decaying sect.

That was the note I left on. All three of us believed that vast 
changes were brewing in the American working-class. 
Nancy believed that the members of her union hated 
Democrat and Republican alike and would flock to a Labor 
Party. Jon thought that railroad workers were extremely 
pissed off and many would follow his lead if he became a 
Labor Party activist. While bourgeois society and sectarian 
mistakes had battered each of us in our own way, we were 
not ready to accommodate ourselves to American 
capitalism. We promised to stay in touch.

I took the train back to New York and awoke from a nap 
midway between Albany and the city. I saw a Great Snowy 
Egret lifting itself into the air from a marsh alongside the 
railroad tracks. I followed the bird as it veered into the sky 
over the Hudson and soared toward the Catskill Mountains. 
The sight of Egrets never failed to make me smile.

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