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
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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