Swans Commentary » swans.com January 25, 2010  



Leslie Evans's Outsider's Reveries


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



(Swans - January 25, 2010)   Available as a download from Scribd.com, Les Evans's Outsider's Reveries is the latest memoir revolving around the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of the United States.

The best known of these is Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will be Free, which seeks to draw a contrast between the author's youthful yearnings to be normal -- hence the skateboard -- and his parent's mad obsessions about overthrowing the capitalist system. For obvious reasons, the memoir was a big hit with The Washington Post and The New York Times. On Facebook, the proud author announced that he has been meeting with HBO. For those who have followed this premium cable station over the years, it is well understood that they find material about dysfunctional families very marketable. It is difficult for me to imagine a fan of "The Sopranos" finding that much of interest in the sad tale of an apolitical youth being forced to boycott grapes, but the HBO executives do have a solid track record making money (the primary ambition of the author they are courting, it should be stressed). Tales about creepy Communists do fit in well, after all, with the American ideological landscape.

In 2005 Barry Sheppard, the number two man in the party for many years until he was expelled, published the first installment of The Party, titled The Sixties: a political memoir. This is a largely self-congratulatory effort that contains page after page of the party's accomplishments in the antiwar movement and other struggles under the author's stewardship. The second volume is obviously much more difficult for the author to produce since it is largely about the party's transformation from a powerful force on the American left into the bizarre cult-sect described in Sayrafiezadeh's work, written from the perspective of a tender youth who was not even a member. For Sheppard, the challenge is to produce a volume two that amounts to an autopsy on the party he spent decades building. Perhaps it will prove insurmountable.

Just before his death in September 2008, Peter Camejo was putting the final touches on an eagerly awaited memoir that will be released posthumously as The North Star in honor of Fredrick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper. Unlike Sheppard, Camejo was dubious about the Socialist Workers Party even when he was part of a troika including Sheppard and Jack Barnes, the cult leader. In the early 1980s, when I was working with Camejo to build the North Star Network, a loose grouping incorporating his new non-sectarian politics, I once asked him if he regretted not having left the SWP much earlier. Expecting him to say that he should have left after around 10 years (about the length of my own tenure) rather than 20, he said he should have left after several months. There was a dogmatic character that disturbed this young Fidelista from the very outset.

Les Evans's memoir is a study in ambivalence. As a top leader of the SWP primarily involved with writing and editing, Evans retains a lot of the "then we did this and then we did that" quality of volume one of Sheppard's book but as another expellee, he cannot help but look askance at the party. Looking back in retrospect, he sees warts that were not obvious at the time. Unlike Camejo, however, these misgivings -- as we shall see -- flow from an anti-Communist perspective in line with the "god that failed" literature. This ambivalence is what gives the book its dramatic tension, notwithstanding the superfluous details that typically show up in an unedited manuscript published by a vanity press. For example, there is a chapter on the author's stepchildren, an obvious labor of love but of almost no interest to people outside the Evans household.

Random House will release my own memoir in 2011, if all goes well. It is a comic book done in collaboration with Harvey Pekar, who is the acknowledged master of the genre. The politics are heavily in debt to Peter Camejo, but the jokes are my own.

The reason for this spate of memoirs might be obvious to those who have some familiarity with the SWP. From the height of its membership in the mid-1970s, around 2000, it is now less than 200 -- a collapse that rivals the Hindenberg flaming to the ground. Given this disaster, it is almost inevitable that ex-members will be impelled to write something that amounts to a postmortem. What caused this once formidable group to virtually disappear?

This is really the most interesting aspect of Evans's memoir, even if his analysis is faulty. His book is filled with details about the leadership's treatment of the ranks that by the 1980s became a conscious policy of driving people out. Evans described being worked over the coals in 1981 by the late Ken Shilman, a hard-line Jack Barnes supporter, for having the temerity to meet with Gerry Foley, a writer and editor like Evans who had gone into opposition. Shilman told him: "Foley gives you a load of crap about the party and you ate it up." He added: "There's a party within the party. The real party is the inner core who understand the centrality of the Cuban revolution and the anti-imperialist struggle. Everybody who has been in the party ten years or more will have to be expelled. Maybe a few of them can be reeducated."

Having left the party on my own accord two years earlier, I was lucky to have avoided the trauma of facing a trial and being expelled. I was not only one of those who had been in for ten years; I was also dubious about the entire "turn toward industry" that had led Les Evans to the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, the home of open mining pits not far from Bob Dylan's hometown.

Only two years before Les had found himself in the Iron Range, I had moved from New York to Kansas City in order to "make the turn toward industry" myself. When my attempts failed in Chaplinesque fashion, I returned to New York unaffiliated. Although I made a little goodbye speech in New York before leaving for Kansas City hailing the "tremendous opportunities" for socialists in factories and mines, I told friends and comrades privately that I did not believe my own words. I was going through a charade that perhaps a thousand members went through in order to remain a member in good standing. If you decided to keep your job as a programmer or a librarian, you might as well have turned in your resignation then and there.

Les candidly admits that lifestyle questions had as much to do with politics in his decision to transfer to the Iron Range:

I thought about where to go and decided to try to find a place that would let me explore some other things I was interested in. First, I didn't mind hard physical work but I didn't like to sweat, so the colder the place the better. I had never lived in a small town, so that would be something new. And then there was the party's long association with Minnesota, the 1934 Teamster strike being the high point.

It might be obvious that for most members, who had not been full-time functionaries like Les, such a move would have been extremely arduous. It meant giving up jobs, homes, and friends in a quest whose only reward might be the chance to lead radicalized workers in struggle as if in a Depression-era proletarian novel. The reality was quite different from the expectations, as Les soon learned:

Most of the workers went by nicknames: Wally, Dewey, Binky. Binky was an overweight kid with a wild mop of blond hair. He came in one morning, having seen Muhammad Ali in the television film Freedom Road, where Ali plays a U.S. Senator during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Binky seemed to have liked the film and wanted to give us a blow by blow account. It went something like, "Then the Nigger did this, then the Nigger did that. . . ." Binky loved bow hunting. One Monday he showed up crowing, "I shot a buck yesterday, right up his asshole!"

I asked the fellows what they thought of evolution. A lathe operator who had recently moved up from Milwaukee and I were the only ones who believed in it. All of the rest thought the world was created by God 7,000 years ago, except for Loren, who thought humans had been brought by extraterrestrials. At noon we would go up to the little lunchroom. Pretty much every day one or two of the men would open his lunch pail and exclaim, "What did the bitch make for me today?" This was during the national effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I started a discussion about it. One of the winder-testers, a Finlander, countered, "My wife IS inferior, and she knows it!" We were all supposed to be members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. We were pretty much told that it was a firing offense to go to a union meeting. Our shop steward, a bitter pockmarked man named Earl with pomaded auburn hair, stomped around repeating that "Dat Equal Rights Amendment ud force ever school to train our kids to be homosekshuls."

In a nutshell, after perhaps a thousand members encountered such realities rather than Tom Joad resolving to fight for his fellow workers, they voted with their feet and turned in their resignation, including me. In my case, it was a second-hand reality as party members in Kansas City began to reveal that factory life was not that much different from the Iron Range.

Meanwhile, while the "turn" was resulting in mass resignations, another more conscious attempt to reduce the numbers of the party was in preparation. In the early 1980s, party leader Jack Barnes decided that the Fourth International was a waste of time and sought to reinvent the SWP as a kind of Fidelista formation with official recognition from Cuba, even though the Cuban leadership was wisely averse to the kind of Vatican role that the Kremlin had assumed in earlier generations.

This rebranding was not going to be easy to carry off, however. Some of the top leaders in the SWP were still convinced that Trotsky's theories were correct. They had stood up to the Communist Party's blackjacks and brass knuckles in the 1930s and '40s and were not likely to go down without a fight. As someone who had spent his entire adulthood defending Trotsky's core ideas, Les Evans was not ready to dump them simply on the basis that it would help ensure the SWP's official benediction as a Cuban-style party in the U.S.A. It was one of the great political ironies of recent times that the ranks of the SWP acquired the same talent that their Stalinist enemies had mastered in the '30s: defending every twist and turn of their party with relish. Whatever Jack Barnes was for, so were they.

Among Trotsky's ideas, the one that arguably carried the greatest weight was the theory of Permanent Revolution, which put succinctly states that colonial revolutions must become socialist if they are to succeed in winning key demands hitherto seen as "bourgeois," such as land reform and national independence. The SWP leaders around Jack Barnes decided that since the Cubans rejected this theory, they would as well. Ironically, according to some sources, Che Guevara had frequently said that the revolution must be socialist or it would be a caricature of a revolution. He was also reported to have been reading Trotsky during his ill-fated attempt to build a guerrilla movement in Bolivia.

Although I had returned to New York in 1979 with the intention of putting socialist politics behind me, I continued reading The Militant newspaper. When I got wind of the party's rejection of Trotskyism a couple of years later, I phoned Les Evans to find out what was going on. Why had the party rejected the theory of Permanent Revolution?

In early 1982 Les wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the SWP leaders intended to be published in their theoretical magazine that contained a long version of what he told me over the phone. After he sent a draft of the article to several party leaders for feedback, he was expelled for initiating an "unauthorized" discussion. However, the expulsion would be suspended while his behavior was "monitored" to make sure he kept in line. These deliberations had a Kafkaesque character since the SWP had never voted to overturn the theory of Permanent Revolution. Indeed, Les's article was nothing but a reaffirmation of the party line. At the time of the next convention, it would have been appropriate for Barnes to submit a resolution on a new orientation that delegates could vote up or down. However, he decided to call off that convention out of fear that many delegates might be persuaded to vote to retain the Trotskyist orientation. When Evans and over one hundred other members protested this undemocratic maneuver, they were expelled.

Les reveals in his memoir that at the very time he was defending Trotskyist orthodoxy in this period, he was beginning to have doubts about the Bolshevik Revolution that transcended the debates of the early '80s:

I began to have doubts about the validity of Permanent Revolution, including Lenin's version of it, not because it couldn't produce a successful seizure of power but because the regime it was likely to create could well be worse than what it replaced. The Socialist Workers Party taught its members what they called the fallacy that Leninism led to Stalinism. I began to think this might be an assertion, not a proof. Nevertheless, in the polemic with Jenness [a Barnes loyalist] I took the stance of Leninist orthodoxy against his historical fabrications.

In later years when I no longer restricted my reading to authors committed to justifying the Soviet system I found that under Lenin and Trotsky the regime introduced controls over workers' job assignments unparalleled in any capitalist state outside of Hitler Germany. The Bolsheviks instituted a pervasive censorship that was not lifted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of people were shot without trial by the Cheka while Lenin and Trotsky headed the government. Hostages were taken in the villages to ensure grain deliveries to the Red Army, and shot if the villagers failed. The death penalty was imposed without trial for taking bribes, for mere monarchist sympathies, for criticizing the regime, for having been a peasant who hired labor, for being moderately well off, or in the famous phrase of Lenin's day, expressing views that may "objectively serve the interests of the bourgeoisie."

Such doubts grew in intensity throughout the 1980s as he continued to work with small leftist groups that continued to believe that the Russian Revolution was one of the great emancipatory events of the 20th century. It was only after Les returned to college in Los Angeles to complete a BA and embark on a doctorate that the doubts turned into a full-fledged rejection of Marxism. As a sociology major, he was exposed to thinkers he had never read before, including Max Weber, who denied, in Les's words, that "social futures were predictable." I am not sure whether or not this would register on Les Evans at this point in his life, but some things are predictable. Unless capitalism is eradicated, war and environmental despoliation are likely to destroy civilization.

As the 1980s dragged on under Reagan and Bush the father, his animosity toward Marxism deepened. Whether this was a function of the social and political pressures that acted on other men his age, like David Horowitz or Ronald Radosh, I will leave others to speculate about. What I do know is that his rejection of Marxism focused on issues that have sustained the anti-Communist ideology industry since its inception, namely that socialist economics do not work.

On this score, he repeats the sort of analysis one finds in Mises and Hayek:

I had seen the economic statistics for growth over many decades for all the statized economies, none of which grew very much faster than capitalist ones and often slower. Marx had said that getting rid of the downturns of the business cycle would release vast increases in productivity, that economics as a plan for the distribution of scarce resources would no longer be necessary under communism. That was patently not so. Even if you stopped production of real luxury goods and left the kind of midrange objects a middle-class home might buy, it was unimaginable that any society could give all such goods away to all its citizens, airplanes to anyone who wanted them, and model trains as well. Wouldn't everyone choose the best stereo in the store, since there was no price on any of them? The audiophile and the tin ear would have to settle for the same standard of quality.

I find myself sharing an entirely different set of concerns from Les. I worry less about audiophiles and tin ears sharing the same standard of quality than I do over the fact that according to the latest Harper's Magazine Index, one out of two American children will be on food stamps at one point in their lives. This is not to speak of the misery in much of the underdeveloped world, starting with Haiti. According to the latest United Nations Human Development Indicators report, Cuba ranks as part of the top level of nations along with Canada, France, and other industrialized countries. After his doubts about Marxism had calcified into a wholesale ideological rejection, he wrote, "After 1991, with centrally planned economies limited to dysfunctional Cuba and pathological North Korea, the whole idea looked more like a failed utopian experiment than the unfolding of some historical law of progress." Perhaps. But if the choice for a person living in Haiti is Cuba or the status quo, they would likely opt for a "dysfunctional Cuba" no matter what Max Weber wrote.

Nearly the final quarter of Outsider's Reverie is devoted to the author's post-radical existence as a UCLA employee with a combination of administrative and academic responsibilities. He marries a woman from his youth who had been in the C.P. and the two of them settle into a placid burgher lifestyle that is shared by most NPR and PBS subscribers. He spends many pages recounting anti-gang volunteer work in his neighborhood, building a dollhouse, and the pleasures of owning a cat. I dutifully stuck to the bitter end since I was curious to see if he had anything of interest to say politically.

I was sad to see that he had become a rather hardened Zionist:

The growing Western leftist support to the jihadis has been a bit stranger, but appears to be based in a general tendency to see the United States and its allies as the greatest evil in the world and, in the case of the anti-Israel activists, the far left's historical ambivalence toward Jews, defending individual assimilationist Jews from persecution while being hostile to any Jewish ethnic or national identity. Tie these together and you get people sure they are the purest of humanitarians who endorse Arab and Iranian demands for the destruction of Israel and prove indifferent to widespread Islamicist calls for the physical extermination of all Jews worldwide.

Back in 1967, just after I had joined the Trotskyist movement, I took a new members class with Les Evans that helped me to solidify my thinking. In the months following the class, I embarked on a reading program of the Marxist classics based on his recommendations. I can honestly say that my earliest introduction to Marxist thought was under his tutelage.

In the summer of 1967, the SWP held a picnic not long after the Six Days War that was held at some lake north of New York City. As someone who grew up in a Zionist family and who had attended Hebrew school, I was anxious to hear Les's take on Israel and on anti-Semitism. He gave what amounted to a half-hour lecture on the history of the Jews and anti-Semitism drawn from a book titled The Jewish Question written by Abram Leon, a Belgian Trotskyist who died in a concentration camp during WWII. The explanation made perfect sense to me since it explained the persecution of the Jews in terms of the functioning of the capitalist system. They were the perfect scapegoat since laws prevented them from being integrated into the mainstream economy. Forced into occupations like tax collectors or pawnbrokers, they were the perfect foil for an enraged peasantry or a ruined proletariat.

What I learned from Les Evans in those days I keep dear to my heart. All the rest I can forgive him for.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 25, 2010