[Marxism] Interview with Paul Buhle

M. Junaid Alam junaidalam at msalam.net
Tue Mar 9 11:53:39 MST 2004


Radical Continuity: An Interview with Paul Buhle

- * By Derek Seidman*

There is probably no one in the world that knows more about the history 
of American radicalism than Paul Buhle. A former member of Students for 
a Democratic Society and a disciple of CLR James, Buhle founded the 
journal Radical America as well as the Oral History of the American Left 
project. He is the author/editor of nearly thirty books, including: 
/Images of American Radicalism, Marxism in the United States, Radical 
Hollywood: The untold story behind America's favorite movies, The 
Encyclopedia of the American Left, The Immigrant Left in the United 
States, The New Left Revisted, Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of 
Mike Alewitz/, and the forthcoming /From the Lower Eastside to 
Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture. / Buhle is currently 
teaching at Brown University. Left Hook's (www.lefthook.org) Derek 
Seidman recently caught up with him for a short interview.


I know that you take very seriously the idea of continuity throughout 
the history of American radicalism. When we talk about radical 
continuity, it seems to me we're talking about how deeply the memory and 
traditions of our radical past have stretched into the present, in such 
a way as to, consciously or not, inspire and educate current efforts for 
social change. It's certainly the case that radical continuity is 
visible in certain places. Take, for instance, the anti-war protests 
earlier this year: not only did they draw heavily on the experiences of 
the sixties in terms of organization and symbols, but many of the 
participants were veterans of those earlier struggles. But it's also the 
case-and it seems most visible in the labor movement-that older 
traditions of militancy, solidarity, and class-consciousness, embodied 
by organizations such as the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the early 
CIO, have left a much weaker pull on the present. How strong and how 
important is radical continuity for us, and what parts of our radical 
past do you see as most important to draw on for lessons and for 
inspiration today?

Continuity offers a difficult question with no easy answer, for a reason 
persistent in US radical activity: demographic transformation. What does 
the history of the fundamentally Euro-American labor movement mean for 
African Americans (when not excluded outright, nearly always relegated 
to its lower rungs), or to newer Latino and Asian immigrants? It remains 
to be established because we aren't now seeing the moments of solidarity 
that recall the best of the legacies.

On the other hand, there is much current interest in the Industrial 
Workers of the World (IWW), for the best reasons. It was at once 
egalitarian, bohemian, completely rebellious, and made its influence 
felt more through songs and slogans, heroes and martyrs, than 
organizational strength. Joe Hill is now better remembered than the 
thuggish-racist George Meany (let alone successor Lane Kirkland, his 
name unknown to an estimated 97 percent of the AFL-CIO members who he 
ruled). My urging of Wobbly legacies now is prompted by the pervasive 
sense that if strikes can be won and unions rebuilt, let alone a wider 
social movement created, Wobbly-like solidarity with the new immigrants 
is the most crucial factor.

Nearly all the particular struggles of the 1960s, as well, seem to be 
fading into memory except for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam 
War. This is fascinating because the current, standard liberal (and 
conservative) treatment of the era, from opinion columns to television 
mini-series, has affirmed a "safe" interpretation of civil rights as a 
call for meritocracy, rather than a "freedom movement" with a broader 
cause; opposition to the war, especially the impolite opposition in 
demonstrations, is viewed as inherently excessive, irrational and 
anti-American. Even those who improbably claim a part in the antiwar 
legacy, from Robert McNamara to the older intellectuals around /Dissent/ 
magazine who blistered campus activists with attacks throughout the 
period, seem determined to make a similar distinction. Some protest, 
strictly acceptable to (say) the Americans for Democratic Action, is 
proper; the unguarded action of young people like the whole New Left was 
improper and, in the words of a recent /New York Times /reviewer, 
"almost as bad" as the US invaders of Vietnam!

"Black Power," like the Black/Jewish conflict used by demagogues on both 
sides (far more successfully by neoliberal and neoconservative Jewish 
elites, of course), has now been refracted by the Latino surge, whose 
diversity makes even "Chicano" seem a word from a long time ago. 
Lamentably, "feminist" is a word that not many young women want to 
hear-attaching it, as they seem to do, to the Glass Ceiling rather than 
social transformation-and "gay" or "lesbian" has become more lifestyle, 
albeit including an important appeal for tolerance, than political 
message. "Homocons" and black conservatives are the most heavily 
promoted political figures of the Right, and likely to remain so, along 
with hawk-liberals like Jean Bethke Elshtain, and the handful of 
erstwhile New Leftists who have, since the 1970s, become boosters for a 
sweeping global military crusade. /Left Hook/ readers may want to troll 
the Website of First of the Month to see how bizarre the craving for 
militarization has become in some quarters, and what strange claims are 
made upon the 1960s to justify it. Then again, most of this sounds 
pretty much like the Congress of Cultural Freedom intellectuals, during 
the 1950s, enthusing at the military coup in Guatemala and adamantly 
refuting charges that African Americans weren't receiving fair trials in 
the South. They, too, claimed to be defending democracy against 
totalitarianism-and making a good living for themselves in the process.

What remains from older struggles may be best symbolized in the timeless 
struggle against Empire and imperial militarization of life everywhere, 
in the name of planetary survival, egalitarianism, and real human 
freedom (not just "civic society," the 1990s favorite recipe for the 
unhindered accumulation of capital). This is not so far, after all, from 
the older visions of socialists, communists, feminists, etc., well 
articulated by Woody Guthrie in bygone days, Tony Kushner now. It's no 
surprise to read savage attacks on /Angels in America/, very much in the 
old /Commentary/Partisan Review/ fashion, in the pages of the /New 
Republic/ or /New York Review of Books/: they firmly believe that they 
own culture, and the perceive accurately that Kushner's popularity and 
critical acclaim is dangerous to that claim. Even the specifics echo the 
rage at Arthur Miller, and the ravings of Robert Warshow against Carl 
Foreman's biting social commentary in High Noon, or again, Pauline 
Kael's endless attack on leftwing films from /Salt of the Earth/ to 
anything at all directed by Martin Ritt. She (and they) didn't need to 
see a film or play to hate it; they only had to look at the credits to 
smell subversion, invariably described as bad aesthetics.


More information about the Marxism mailing list