[Marxism] This 86-Year-Old Radical May Save (or Sink) the Democrat

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 12 16:47:14 MDT 2019

NY Times, May 12, 2019
This 86-Year-Old Radical May Save (or Sink) the Democrat
By Alex Traub

On a recent afternoon, a crowd had gathered in the auditorium of the 
People’s Forum, a new event space in Midtown Manhattan. There was a 
picture of Lenin tacked on the wall, a shelf of books about Che Guevara 
and a cafe serving avocado toast. The young true believers and rickety 
old militants in attendance were learning history and strategy from 
Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor of political science at the 
Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

“Since the 1970s, everything has gotten worse and worse,” said Ms. 
Piven, who is now 86. There were very clear reasons for this. “Poor 
people,” she said, had been “humiliated” and “shut up.” Those in power 
now are “crazy.”

“But they’re also evil,” she continued. “And they will be evil because 
they are greedy.” Only one thing would stop them, she said. “We have to 
be noisy, and difficult and ungovernable.”

Ms. Piven has been making this argument for over half a century. While 
Democratic veterans like the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, seek to build 
consensus, Ms. Piven praises its opposite: “dissensus.”

Trying to work within the system is terribly misplaced, Ms. Piven 
argues, since it’s rigged by elites against the poor. What’s needed is a 
sense of crisis that will force change. And that, she insists, can be 
achieved only by the “mass defiance” of a disruptive protest movement.

These revolutionary ideals long made Ms. Piven infamous to some, heroic 
to a few and unknown to everyone else. But with the rise of a youthful 
radical left, her admirers are growing in influence for the first time 
since Ms. Piven entered politics in the 1960s.

Bookish political operatives and labor organizers in the Democratic 
Socialists of America — whose membership has increased by nearly 50,000 
since 2015 — revere Ms. Piven.

According to David Duhalde, 34, formerly the Democratic Socialists’ 
deputy director and now the political director of Our Revolution, a 
group aligned with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the “ideological 
leadership” is full of Pivenites.

Micah Uetricht, 31, managing editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, 
is also devoted to Ms. Piven’s work. He said he has read “Poor People’s 
Movements,” Ms. Piven’s venerated 1977 book, at least three times.

“She’s someone whose body of work shows that you don’t have to drift off 
into this La-La Land of intellectualism,” Mr. Uetricht said. “People 
should be going on strike. People should be withdrawing their labor 
power or causing chaos in society. That’s where their power comes from.”

Probably the most influential vector for Ms. Piven’s ideas is the 
social-justice incubator Momentum, a training program for progressives 
that formed in 2014.

Trainees include members of the Sunrise Movement, whose occupation of 
Ms. Pelosi’s office with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked conversation 
about the Green New Deal. It was just the sort of disruption Ms. Piven 

“What tactics we use is exactly the question that Piven is addressing,” 
said Lissy Romanow, 35, Momentum’s executive director. Part of Ms. 
Piven’s appeal, she said, came from her view that social movements are 
required for big left-wing victories — a perspective suited to a 
generation disillusioned with liberal business as usual.

Ms. Piven takes an active part in spreading her own ideas. In July, she 
will be headlining the 2019 Socialism Conference, to be held in Chicago 
and sponsored by Jacobin magazine and the Democratic Socialists.

For decades, no event has struck her as too small.

Before the Democratic Socialists of America had its resurgence in 2016, 
the organization would hold summer youth retreats in upstate New York. A 
few dozen college students would attend lectures and discussions, taking 
breaks for games of whiffle ball and bonfires. Ms. Piven always came. 
“She was a celebrity showing up to these embarrassing meetings,” Mr. 
Duhalde said.

“I’ve seen Fran at organizing meetings, I’ve seen her at protests, at 
Occupy, at conferences, retreats and planning sessions,” said Sarah 
Jaffe, 38, a left-wing journalist and author. “She’s obviously one of 
the most influential people I can think of.”

Ms. Piven was born in Canada in 1932 and grew up in Jackson Heights, 
Queens. Her parents both emigrated from Uzlyany, a shtetl near Minsk.

It’s a background shared by other great polemicists of the 20th century. 
The sociologist Nathan Glazer, the historian Howard Zinn, and the writer 
Vivian Gornick also were born between 1920 and 1935 to Jewish immigrant 
parents from Eastern Europe and grew up in outer-borough New York. The 
same goes for the socialist critic Irving Howe, whose father, like Ms. 
Piven’s, struggled to run a deli.

Secular to the point of not celebrating birthdays, nostalgic for the 
culture of Russia and bitterly conscious of their poverty, Ms. Piven’s 
family found a source of meaning in politics. This was most true of her 

“He told me a little bit about capitalism, how it’s a dog-eat-dog 
society, and that you couldn’t believe the capitalist press, it was all 
full of lies,” Ms. Piven said. “I said, ‘Why do you read the newspaper, 
Daddy?’ Because he read it — he really read it. And he said, ‘I read 
between the lines.’ Being literal-minded as little kids are, I tried to 
do that. I tried and tried.”

Rebelliousness came to her early. In elementary school, she refused to 
say the Pledge of Allegiance, even after being forced to stand in a 
corner with her face to the wall. “I said I could only pledge allegiance 
to the Maple Leaf,” Ms. Piven recalled. “I was a Canadian.”

In 1962, she started working at Mobilization for Youth, the New York 
antipoverty program that became a model for President Lyndon B. 
Johnson’s War on Poverty. Soon, she was observing rent riots and 
watching speeches by figures such as Malcolm X. She said that once, 
while standing guard outside a student-occupied building at Columbia 
University, she was attacked by the police.

During the welfare rights movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Ms. 
Piven repeatedly stormed welfare centers with other activists to demand 
benefits — including on her birthday, which led to her arrest. “Know 
what he said?” asked Ms. Piven, recalling her talk with the policeman. 
“‘You must be a very nice person to do this on your birthday.’”

All of these experiences showed Ms. Piven the art and power of political 
confrontation. “The streets of New York, the streets of the Lower East 
Side, the streets of Harlem — you could feel the energy almost 
crackling,” she said of her early days in politics. “That assertiveness 
came with anger, and a certain violence.”

Following the crucible of the ’60s and early ’70s, Ms. Piven’s academic 
career flourished. Her books, particularly “Poor People’s Movements,” 
were assigned in college classes. She received awards and held 
prestigious posts: honorary chairwoman of the Democratic Socialists of 
America; vice president of American Political Science Association; 
president of the American Sociological Association.

At the same time, politics no longer fully accommodated her desire for 
fiery activism. Ms. Piven helped lead a successful drive to reform voter 
registration, but it was a campaign that rested on tactics tamer than 
“mass defiance.” During academic conferences and at least one televised 
debate of the 1990s, Ms. Piven became a lonely advocate for welfare 
rights as much of the country turned against the welfare system.

Her public profile came to rest, perversely, on attempts of right-wing 
commentators to tar moderate liberals with her brand of radicalism. The 
television personality Glenn Beck repeatedly identified Ms. Piven and 
her husband and collaborator, Richard Cloward, who died in 2001, as a 
secret, dark force dictating former President Barack Obama’s agenda. The 
duo, Mr. Beck said, was “fundamentally responsible for the 
unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system.”

This style of condemnation continues. A recent article on the political 
news site RealClearPolitics claimed that “all social policy innovations 
since the 1960s have been incremental steps in the Cloward-Piven plan to 
bankrupt America.”

Without quite thinking she is a wicked witch of the left, liberals have 
still strongly objected to many of Ms. Piven’s views. John McWhorter, a 
writer and linguist, for example, argued that Ms. Piven and Mr. 
Cloward’s work on welfare rights led African-Americans to become 
dependent on welfare.

The division between Ms. Piven and other supporters of the Democratic 
Party comes in part from the fact that while most changed their views 
over time, Ms. Piven did not.

Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University, 
was once a radical in the vein of Ms. Piven. As a young man, he attended 
the tumultuous protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National 
Convention and felt pushed toward militancy. Then, like many other 
members of his generation, he grew disillusioned with what he saw as 
dogma and destructiveness and found there was greater power in America’s 
tradition of liberal reform.

In an interview, Mr. Wilentz said that he disputed the moral 
implications and efficacy of Ms. Piven’s tactics.

Ms. Piven’s promotion of mass disruption rests on the idea that it 
deserves credit for the biggest progressive achievements in American 
history. Abolitionists, she argues, brought about emancipation, while 
jobless protesters and striking workers forced the most progressive 
legislation of the New Deal.

Mr. Wilentz disagrees.

“It’s not true that social movements are everything and politicians are 
just these ciphers,” he said.

When disruption has become divisive or violent, Mr. Wilentz said, it has 
invited backlash. “The legacy of the more riotous protests we’re talking 
about is Donald Trump,” he said.

Moderate Democrats worry a strident style will similarly doom today’s 
ascendant left.

Ms. Piven responds to such criticism by arguing that backlash is an 
inevitable consequence of righteous political campaigns. Most violence 
associated with protest, she observes, comes from authorities 
suppressing demonstrators.

“People do get hurt,” she acknowledged matter-of-factly. After continued 
probing, Ms. Piven finally found a movement she could describe as going 
too far. “I think the French Revolution was awful,” she said.

Today, Ms. Piven lives in a spacious, simply furnished apartment near 
Columbia University, where she moved with Mr. Cloward in 1983. She still 
ventures out to meet with activists and to deliver public speeches as 
often as possible, but she recognizes she is growing frail. Ms. Piven 
often prefers to see friends and students in her apartment, where she 
likes to wear a cozy sweatshirt of the Green Bay Packers — the football 
team whose public ownership some consider quasi-socialist.

Young people seem drawn to Ms. Piven, and she occasionally writes with 
younger colleagues, deploying the edgy imagination of what she once 
called “the strategist of dissensus.”

In a recent interview with Jacobin, she wondered about the possibility 
of disrupting supply chains by closing truck depots along the New Jersey 
Turnpike. She frequently mentions her wish for a mass movement to renege 
on debt payments. Perhaps people would be inspired to protest the unjust 
economic conditions that force them into debt, she thinks, if school 
boards challenged exploitative loans they’d received from banks.

“You can’t be Frances and sit quietly in an armchair,” said Barbara 
Ehrenreich, the distinguished left-wing author, who is an old friend of 
Ms. Piven’s. “When people are marching in the streets, Frances has got 
to be out there with them.”

Much as Ms. Piven upholds defiant protest as the path to leftist 
victory, she also clearly takes pleasure and pride in the act of 
confrontation itself. She happily remembers, for instance, the campaign 
she was part of in the 1970s and ’80s to remove John Silber, the 
controversial president of her former employer, Boston University. So 
what that the movement failed?

“Working on any political project is enormously fun,” she said. “You 
don’t have to win for it to be really terribly satisfying. You get good 
friends. You do the right thing. You test your courage.”

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