Priorities

Apsken at SPAMaol.com Apsken at SPAMaol.com
Sat May 6 11:49:51 MDT 2000


Lou wrote,

>  Ken, this is such sterile bullshit. If you put half as much effort into
>  explaining why CLR James was an important figure and forgot about his
>  detractors, including Sol, this list would benefit greatly. You can not
>  assume that all the people who are new to Marxism have read CLR James.
>  Although I enjoy reading your full-tilt polemics against Zizek, I have a
>  feeling that you lack enthusiasm for promoting a vision of what you believe
>  in. The reason I have been scanning in material from the American Socialist
>  is to promote a vision of what I think the US left should be about. This
>  includes Carl Braden's or Al Moundt's reportage on the civil rights
>  movement or Harry Braverman's economic analysis. This is the kind of
>  magazine that the left needs today, IMHO.

    Lou may be right, but maybe not. I do not have the time to devote to
on-line proselytizing that some others do. In my opinion, the LBO-talk
exchange about Zizek has provided a platform to argue affirmatively a vision
of revolutionary Marxism against those who seek to corrupt it, and with this
additional advantage: Though most of the audience there is never likely to be
engaged in real mass struggles of the proletariat and oppressed people, some
will be, and presenting them with a challenge from the radical left is a
worthwhile project for someone like myself with limited time.

    By contrast, most brief postings here would amount to preaching to the
choir. Truth be told, I really have very few political differences with Sol
Dollinger, which is why I find his sectarianism so annoying, enough to be
worth setting the historical record straight.

    Both C.L.R. James and Carl Braden were important figures in my political
growth, and Anne Braden even more so, although I had and have political
differences with all three.

    James shaped my understanding of what Marxism is, and its relation to
mass movements, and the relationship of freedom struggles in the Third World
and oppressed communities to those of the proletariat as a whole. Long before
my time, the Johnsonites had published his Notes on Dialectics, and had
translated and published the first English language edition of Karl Marx's
early writings on alienation. They showed how Lenin's study of Hegel during
his Swiss exile transformed his understanding of Marxism. (Before his study,
Lenin explained the Social-Democratic sellout to national chauvinism as class
betrayal, and his response was the rather pallid Zimmerwald manifesto; after
Hegel, he attributed it to the negation of old political/class stances under
the new stage of capitalism, which led directly to his theory of
Imperialism.) It was these studies that led James and his followers to depart
Trotskyism, which was uninterested in and hostile to these insights. But the
insurgencies that began in 1950s, both in the colonial countries and in the
imperialist heartland, were exceptionally receptive to James's view of
revolution, while older versions of Marxism, including that of the American
Socialist, were increasingly irrelevant. Specifically it was the combination
of James's influence with SNCC, RAM, and DRUM/LRBW that overcame his ban from
the U.S., and brought him back as an esteemed leader and teacher for about 15
years, before his final retirement to Brixton.

    The principal difference between Johnsonites and Cochranites was not
theoretical in the 1950s; it was a difference of attitude. The former were
optimistic; the latter, pessimistic. In this stance, though both would have
been horrified at the thought, the Johnsonites were much closer to the
Marcyites, which is why both groups were drawn to Robert Williams's struggle
in North Carolina at the time, and James quite naturally to Malcolm X in the
1960s. The American Socialist published many fine articles, but its swan song
editorial on the eve of the greatest postwar radical upsurge well illustrated
its shortcomings.

    Anne and Carl Braden hired me to work in the Deep South for SCEF in 1971,
but I knew their work long before that, and had met Anne originally at the
1960 SNCC convention in Atlanta. By then she was already a legend to me. Much
later, our mutual friend and comrade comrade, Walter Collins, who was a SNCC
and SCEF organizer in Louisiana and Mississippi, refused induction (by an
all-white KKK-infested draft board) and went to prison. The Bradens wrote the
main agitational flyer for this struggle, Black Draft Resisters: Does Anyone
Care?, published by SCEF. I wrote a much longer pamphlet, 30 Years of
Selective Service Racism, which began with Winfred Lynn's struggle against
the racist U.S. military draft of the 1940s (brother of Conrad Lynn), in
which C.L.R. James (still a Trotskyist leader) had been a central figure, and
ended with the SNCC resisters of the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in Walter's
imprisonment. Carl toured the country with Virginia Collins (Dara Abubakari),
Walter's mother, who was also a vice president of the Republic of New Africa.
Based on my pamphlet, the Bradens decided I was a suitable publicist for the
SCEF staff, and hired me to represent SCEF in the Deep South, based in
Mississippi. (In that capacity, I later toured with Virginia Collins also,
and spent a dozen years working in solidarity with the RNA in Mississippi.)

    The Southern Conference for Human Welfare was founded by Joe Gelders, a
communist union organizer in Alabama in the 1930s. It became the broad united
front network of radical and liberal activists and academics, and with the
Popular Front, the principal vehicle for propagating New Deal programs in
Dixiecrat territory. After the war, only its educational wing, the Southern
Conference Educational Fund, remained. Its director, James Dombrowski,
decided that SCEF's principal program should be breaking down racial
segregation, and all of SCEF's resources were devoted to that aim. His
South-wide network of activists embraced other institutions also, such as
Myles Horton's Highlander Center, then located at Monteagle, Tennessee.
Because of those activities, SCEF and Highlander became the chief enemies of
the Congressional redhunting committees, which were chaired by Dixiecrats.
(Neither Jim Dombrowski nor Myles Horton were affiliated with or in political
agreement with the CP. Jim was a Christian Socialist; Myles was a follower of
Norman Thomas. But both welcomed the involvement of every left current in
their organizations and programs, and were successful in doing so, when every
other similar attempt, such as A.J. Muste's American Forum, ended in failure.)

    Dombrowski hired Carl and Anne Braden as SCEF field secretaries. They had
been newspaper reporters in Louisville, Kentucky, and political supporters of
Henry Wallace's Progressive Party presidential campaign in 1948. Carl was
prosecuted for sedition after selling his home to a Black family, which led
to a nationwide campaign to free him. The story is told in Anne's book The
Wall Between. Carl later went to prison for contempt of Congress, refusing to
testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. One of my first
political activities was organizing meetings to view and discuss the
redbaiting film about the struggle against HUAC produced by the committee,
Operation Abolition, where we distributed copies of Anne's pamphlet, HUAC:
Bulwark of Segregation.

    In the 1960s, and until 1975, SCEF was a mainstay of all the civil-rights
insurgents, particularly SCLC and SNCC, and was an interracial network of
virtually every Southern radical current (except for those that chose not to
join, notably the SWP). Although the CP was probably the largest political
current, it did not hold a majority, with substantial involvement of WWP
members, all the Maoist currents, smaller sects, and radical independents of
SCLC and NAACP, such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Modjeska Simkins.

    The best explanation of the relationship between the radical left and the
civil rights movement -- and the extreme redbaiting hostility of liberals --
is Anne Braden's Monthly Review book The Southern Freedom Movement in
Perspective.

    Shortly after I joined the SCEF staff, Carl set up his own project called
the Training Institute for Propaganda and Organizing, which gave workshops
for grass-roots groups all across the South, on how to organize, publicize,
and raise money for people's movements. I helped teach several of those. Carl
endlessly reprinted and distributed two basic texts for these workshops. One
was Leo Huberman's old Monthly Review article How to Spread the Word. The
other was SCEF's pamphlet on the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (the
original Black Panther Party). Even today, it would be hard to find better
resources for new activists than those.

    In 1975, SCEF split, which caused considerable personal anguish, because
The Bradens and I were on opposite sides. (The explanation given in Paul
Buhle's encyclopedia is rubbish. The issue was Black nationalism and
autonomous Black organization; when the CP-dominated SCEF staff in Louisville
called the cops on the local nationalists, the Bradens backed the staff,
while the rest of us of various political stripes demanded accountability,
apology, and change. When the CPers chose to leave instead of backing down,
the Bradens left with them. After the split, Walter Collins, Eileen Whalen,
and I attempted to keep the rest of the organization intact, but we were
outnumbered then by the Maoists, who expelled us and took over SCEF to loot
its resources.)

    Despite the split, the Bradens and I continued to work together to free a
friend of mine from a racist frame-up in Florida. Delbert Tibbs, a Chicago
poet, had been framed up on a rape charge. Racist use of the rape charge was
the issue that had radicalized Anne as a young woman in the 1940s, when she
was arrested in Mississippi for protesting the frame-up of Willie McGee in
Laurel, and she has written several agitational pamphlets on the issue. Carl
mobilized his contacts nationally, which proved instrumental eventually in
freeing Delbert.

    Just before our expulsion from SCEF by the Maoists, but after the split
with the CP and the Bradens, Congress finally voted to abolish HUAC. I asked
Carl to write an editorial on the subject, since he had been one of the
Committee's most famous victims. The next morning came news of Carl's death,
and later that day, the postman delivered Carl's article, which was his final
publication.

Ken Lawrence





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