Young Detroit radicals 1955-1965 - Dan Georgakas

CLR James

Dan Georgakas's personal recollections of radicals in Detroit and the people who formed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Young Detroit Radicals 1955-1965 (1)
I first heard of what was then Correspondence (2) (soon to split into two groups, one taking the name Facing Reality) at a meeting of the News and Letters group, where a speaker noted that their former comrades had started a new round of public meetings. I had been introduced to News and Letters by an English teacher at Wayne University, but I was not overly impressed by what seemed to be little more than a publishing committee for the thoughts of Chairwoman Raya Dunayevskaya. I decided to check out the rival group.

The period was the late 1950's and one of the major issues under discussion by Correspondence was the significance of the Hungarian Revolution. Marty Glaberman and Seymour Faber were particularly passionate about this subject. I felt that I had come in during the middle of a running debate about something extremely important, but somehow, no one got around to spelling out the underlying principles. It would be many years before I comprehended how Hungary related to workers' self-organization at the point of production and lessons that could be drawn regarding methods of radical organization. At the time I was disturbed by the apparent strength of right-wing elements in the Hungarian movement and was not convinced that the workers had really directed the revolt, much less that they had directed the revolt from their factories.

My inability to grasp the Correspondence Hungarian analysis was shared by the other young radicals, Black and white, then becoming active in the city. Nonetheless, the discussions were not in vain. Although most of us did not make the connections to theories of the vanguard party or think too deeply about the development of the European working class, we did become engaged with other basic concepts. Paramount among these was that what was really important in analyzing social ferment was to determine what the workers were doing. Simple as that may seem, it was quite different from the usual emphasis on what parties are doing and saying, and even what workers are saying.(3) Glaberman never missed a chance to speak about the No Strike Pledge of the war years, how when asked to make a "patriotic" pledge not to strike, the workers agreed enthusiastically, but as soon as the pledge was used against them in the workplace, the same workers had no hesitation about striking. Even though we were not convinced at the time about the radical nature of the Hungarian revolt, we were convinced that if the facts as Correspondence presented them were reality, then indeed it marked a new phase of socialist development, a phase not unlike the emergence of the first Soviets.

The person who made the strongest immediate impression on us, particularly among the Blacks who would become the nucleus of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, was James Boggs. He had been through numerous rank-and-file movements and racial initiatives within unions, and he spoke eloquently about his experiences. Although Marty and others in the group also worked in factories, Boggs was the only one who seemed to be the kind of militant who spoke and acted in terms that had immediate application. When he spoke about workers, he described the kind of people we all knew rather than the idealizations projected by other radical groups and even other members of his own circle. Boggs was especially intriguing when he enumerated the shortcomings of the class and its internal problems, emphasizing underdevelopment among Black as well as white workers. Later, of course, he and his wife would develop these ideas more fully in a number of writings.(4)

A number of people involved in the Correspondence-Facing Reality orbit were also involved in the defense of Robert Williams. At the time, non-violence was being touted as a strategy and tactic for the emerging civil rights movement. Williams' response of armed self-defense to KKK attacks in North Carolina seemed to make a lot more sense. That he was charged with kidnapping a white couple when he had actually been protecting them from potential mob violence seemed a typical example of the kind of ''justice" militants could expect in state and federal courts. Williams' newsletter, The Crusader, published mainly during his self-exile in Cuba and then China, was widely read in Detroit. Early on, people thought he was a bit daffy, but they supported his thesis of armed self-defense. Individuals in his support group were active in a series of local groups — the Negro Action Committee, UHURU, the Inner City Voice — which lead to the creation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

In contrast to the influence of Glaberman, Boggs, and personalities of the civil rights movement, the influence of James was indirect. Some of his books were thrust at us and had quite an impact, but there was little attempt to present his ideas in a systematic manner. Nor was there any effort to explain how News and Letters, Correspondence, Facing Reality, et al. had evolved out of Trotskyist politics. Such information surfaced in personal conversations with individual: or as background on specific issues I got the impression that the group was a bit schizoid about its relationship to James: they were extremely attentive to his views on all subjects, but did not wish to become one more cult wed to a leading personality in exile whose every whim could convulse the faithful. Consequently, while his letters from Britain were read and studied within the immediate circle, in public events his leadership was played down. A complicating factor was that James seemed distant in style from the kind of informal give-and take Detroiters preferred. When visiting the Detroit area in the 1960's (forced sometimes to speak across the border in Windsor, Ontario), he seemed too much the Great Author to attract the scrappy younger generation in personal terms.(5)

Perhaps the single greatest barrier between the perspective of the young radicals and the James group was the different attitude regarding socialist revolutions in the Third World. Ironically, The Black Jacobins, James's most widely read book, was mainly interpreted in a kind of Maoist fashion as an example of how an underdeveloped Third World nation could defeat the most powerful imperialists of its day through a protracted people's war. But groups like Facing Reality had little input to offer on specifics. When they did speak out they seemed to know less about the details and nuances involved than other sources available to us. Even though James's groups had published important material on Africa, they seemed unable to cope with the reality of the new guerilla movements in southern Africa and Latin America.

For our part, we were neither particularly pro- or anti-U.S.S.R. What we saw was that the U.S.S.R. was not then actively leading or enthusiastically supporting revolutionary struggles around the world. The nation that seemed most promising in that respect was China. Luke Tripp and Charles Johnson used to say that whatever the Man says is bad, is good.(6) It followed that since China was the number one villain of the hour, China was the nation to learn from. Another Detroit comrade of mine expressed the same thought by indicating that the intelligent way to read the New York Times was to assume the opposite of whatever was printed was true and work backwards.

Behind these jests was a genuine knowledge of the particulars of the Chinese Revolution. We were primarily concerned with the history of that struggle while the older radicals, whatever their affiliation, seemed to be obsessed with ideology. The older radicals gave the impression that if they could show parallels between Mao and Stalin, the discussion on China was sealed. This greatly irritated those of us who saw the Chinese Revolution as a process that had transformed the lives of millions of people and which still had enormous revolutionary vitality and potential.

If China was important, it was also distant — geographically, culturally, and generationally. Cuba was close, extremely close. When the revolution came to power, we were delighted. A socialist revolution had been made in Uncle Sam's back yard by people culturally similar to ourselves and only a few years older. Individuals who would be at the core of the League took part in Cuba support committees, visited Che Guevara at the United Nations, and took part in trips to Cuba that defied the State Department ban on travel to the island.

Another foreign policy focus for us was Palestine. Detroit happens to have the largest Arab population in the United States; and from the early 1960's onward, anti-Zionist positions that were not anti-Semitic were carefully articulated in speeches, publications, and activities of a new generation of Detroit-based Arabs with a radical perspective. Discussions about the differences between various Palestinian groups and debates about the efficacy of terrorist tactics were the norm of political discussion. With the influx of Yemeni and Palestinian immigrants into the automobile plants, an alliance between Black and Arab workers took on a pragmatic edge, inside the plants and out. One of the first major public activities of the young Arab militants of the 1960's was a series of legal actions and demonstrations aimed at Mayor Hubbard of Dearborn, infamous for years as the area's number one racist official. Eventually, Blacks involved with the League would travel to the Middle East as guests of various Arab hosts, and the major attempt to remove the League from control of Wayne State University's daily newspaper would center on the support Mike Hamlin, John Watson, and others gave to the Palestine Liberation Organization.(7)

These international concerns, important as they were to all of us, were eclipsed by the Black liberation struggle in the United States. In addition to purely local initiatives such as the Northern High School strike, there were contacts with national groups. Typically, the Detroit area SNCC group was dissolved early in the 1960's by the national office because we wanted to take direct action in the North at a time when SNCC wanted to preserve the North as a fundraising base. James Forman, who was responsible for this ouster, would, six years later, become an ally of the people he had bumped, when they would unite in an effort to create a Black Workers Congress. In spite of this temporary falling-out over tactics, Detroit Black radicals preferred SNCC over the other mainline civil rights groups and were very supportive of people like H. Rap Brown. There was always strong antipathy to Martin Luther King and admiration for Malcolm X throughout his various ideological phases. Resistance to serving in the white man's army for any purpose was a given, and when draft notices were received by local militants there was resistance of various types. The most dramatic was in 1965, when a campaign was launched to urge 50,000 angry Blacks to appear at the Fort Wayne Induction Center to “Destroy the Draft.” Among those involved were General Baker, John Robinson, Sidney Fields, Charles Thornton, John Watson, and John Williams.(8)

Facing Reality made a real contribution in connecting our internationalism and our immediate struggles. We were seeking an analysis that could specifically relate the racism that permeated American society to international revolutionary currents and to the grim realities of an advanced capitalist economy. Marxism became accepted as the best general analysis available, but people wanted a specific critique of our particular time and place, an analysis that could lead to a program of action. Facing Reality, through its general emphasis, opened the road to some answers.

More than any other group, Facing Reality provided the historical, and ideological base for concentrating organizing activities at the point of production. This re-enforced the existing skepticism most of us felt about relying on the courts, churches, neighborhoods, electoral politics and schools as the main focus of agitation. The accent on the workplace drew an early and distinct line between programs tailored to the needs of workers, employed or unemployed, as opposed to those which appealed to street people, usually referred to by us even in the early 1960's as lumpen. Furthermore, Facing Reality provided a sophisticated critique of the United Automobile Workers and a thesis for supporting the demands of Black workers over those of white workers when they were in apparent conflict. With its talk about workers' councils, however fuzzy the details, Facing Reality illuminated a way of thinking about organizing workers that did not require a vanguard party.

Perhaps Facing Reality was most influential in its views of a workers' press. It was not accidental that the Inner City Voice was the immediate precursor of the League or that the use of Wayne State University's newspaper as the de facto daily organ of the League was one of the organization's most inspired and successful ventures. Although neither Lenin nor Marx was widely read by the League activists, Lenin's pamphlet on the press, Where To Begin (1903), was well known, mainly through the Facing Reality group, and one of the major goals of the League was to establish its own printing facilities, a project which fell just short of success. On the issue of a press, Glaberman's influence on John Watson was considerable.

The paradox involved in Facing Reality's relationship with the younger radicals was that the fervor and insight the group brought to its analysis of workers' movements elsewhere and at other times seemed to be absent from its commentary on our immediate reality. The organization gave the impression of being a spent entity in terms of direct action and even in offering theoretical solutions to the strategic and tactical problems at hand. When the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was on the brink of capturing some of the UAW locals, for instance, and most radicals in the city were deeply concerned with helping them win, Marty Glaberman would point out that the League might be in worse shape for having to enforce the union contract if it won. Likewise, when radicals proposed running for judge and mayor, Glaberman wondered aloud if winning might not prove more disastrous than losing. This position seemingly echoed the old IWW refusal to sign contracts with employers. Abstractly correct or not, it seemed like workerist anarchism returning through the back door. With a Facing Reality agenda for direct action apparently absent, Detroiters clamoring for relief from existential burdens and radicals anxious to make a bid for leadership roles in local and national struggles were not impressed.

Undoubtedly the most painful moment for Facing Reality was when its members realized that, at the very time when new student. Black, and worker organizations were on the rise, the group had not grown in numbers or obvious influence. The decision to dissolve the organization at that point was a brave and honest one, a course motivated by a sense of realism and modesty lacking in most leftists. The move also indicated that in some decisive way, the influence of Facing Reality (and that of James's ideas) was destined to be manifested in less public, more personal if hardly less important ways, and through the printed word.

Facing Reality had all along set a high standard for personal ethics, respect for culture and non-sectarian communications. These virtues became increasingly important as the decade of the 1960's wore on. The group always talked a great deal about the importance of the committees of correspondence in the American Revolution. Often, the homes of Facing Reality people, particularly Marty and Jessie Glaberman, were a flesh and blood committee of correspondence. People coming into town or members of rival groups or residents of different areas of the city used the Glabermans to stay in touch with one another. If Marty often seemed more interested in setting up a speaking engagement or publishing a pamphlet or getting another James title into print than in taking action, he never operated on a subjective or self-serving basis. It was Marty who put me in touch with Paul Buhle, who was then putting out Radical America. Later, Paul would pass along my name to Gary Crowdus, who was trying to get together a staff for the fledgling Cineaste. When Italian militants from Florence and Turin came to Detroit, they usually stayed with Marty and Jessie and were put in touch with whomever they wanted to see, whether the Glabermans were on good terms with them or not. This kind of interaction went on all the time and was all the more impressive because it was never put in the context of building a Facing Reality organization or even a Facing jxeality network. The group, in short, lived up to its commitment to communication.

The influence of Facing Reality on the arts was considerably stronger than any of the other leftist groups in the city. There was never any question of pushing socialist realism or imposing a political line. The first of my poems ever printed were published in Correspondence, exactly as composed. In 1958 when I founded a literary magazine called Serendipity, the Facing Reality response was to make me aware of Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. Most important was the support Facing Reality extended to all efforts toward self-publishing, whether the focus was political or artistic. We could feel we were part of a tradition that was much richer and far more sophisticated than that of Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press in San Francisco, the immediate inspiration for the literary small press movement of the 1960's.(9)

Frank Monico, one of the Facing Reality stalwarts, was also an established local actor. I had first seen him in a mid-1950's production of Awake and Sing. Later, in the early 196U's, we were both involved in theatrical productions of the Unstabled Coffeehouse. He played John L. Lewis in a play we put on for UAW workers in Flint. Lily Tomlin, Rev. Malcolm Boyd, William Snodgrass, and Woodie King Jr. were among other local writers and performers involved with the coffeehouse at various times. As chance would have it, Marty and Jessie Glaberman were the first people to put me in touch with the group. This linkage of culture and politics seemed natural to us. James's book on cricket was well known, and people immediately grasped the social implications of what West Indians had done to the British sport as Black athletes were just beginning to enter the various professional major leagues.

It is against this rich cultural background that one can think more charitably about John Watson's and Ken Cockrel's hopes for Black Star Productions.(10) After completing Finally Got the News, the League hoped to involve Jane Fonda and Don Sutherland in a film about Rosa Luxemburg. Few people not directly involved realize how close film projects of this kind came to realization. Without belaboring the point or unduly emphasizing the impact of Facing Reality, I think the group provided a definition of culture that was far more profound than that which surrounded most political movements of the 1960's. For us, culture was never a tag on to politics but part of the center. We assumed that sophisticated art went hand in hand with sophisticated politics. One did not go to workers with a debased version of either.

That "the personal is political" has become a given for the radical movement of the late 1970's and 1980's. Here, too, Facing Reality was ahead of the times. Many of the younger radicals felt confident in seeking out the Glabermans or James Boggs for personal advice. A number of people involved in pre- League groups lived near Boggs and would drop by for personal and political chats. The Glabermans served a similar role for others, Blacks and whites. In my own case, I remember a talk we had about my decision to go to Europe. I wondered what their political position on it would be. They said that the revolution was not such an invalid that everyone had to stay home and nurse. They felt that as long as I had not forsaken my political views, what was good for me personally would work out to be constructive for my comrades as well. Jessie was particularly alarmed at how the movement burned out people or made them crazy with personal frustration. When we had this talk, I thought I was going to go to Greece. It turned out that I went to Rome and because of contacts made there, some five years later, I was able to arrange for members of the League to be guests at various workers' conferences sponsored by Italian militants. No one could possibly guess at the time of our conversation that there would be a League or an extra-parliamentary movement in Italy. I've thought about this incident many times because I know of several individuals in Detroit who belong to groups of 12 to 50 and have to mortify themselves to get "permission" for summer travel or to pursue "personal" projects.

Another warning about leftist megalomania was offered to me by George Rawick. He asked me to consider how it felt to be a socialist militant at the outbreak of World War II — to know that in all the world, among all the brave workers and activists, only a handful of Trotskyists understand the real issues, and that among that revolutionary remnant, only your minority tendency has the right line.

Interchanges like this could be multiplied many times, and I believe the biggest impact of James's ideas on us came through such experiences. The Detroit radical scene would not have been the same without those ideas and their power over major and minor personalities who would take roles in local struggles. Certainly the influence might have been greater if the set of ideas had been systematized and abstractions reconciled with the tasks before us. But the problem is more complex than whether individuals had the will for such a task or made a strong enough effort. Those were new and strange times for the veterans of revolutionary struggles of the 1940's and 1950's. In addition, Facing Reality people did not know whether to regard us younger radicals as college students who would eventually enter the middle class world, or advanced workers who might one day become part of the leadership of a Detroit workers' council. As a group, we did not really know either. Some of the people mentioned in these pages have become writers or full-time intellectual workers; some have remained factory workers; some are members of vanguard parties; some have returned to survival in the streets; and some have gained elective office without lowering their socialist banners. Facing Reality members had known some of these people since their high school days, had been supportive in the abstract and often helpful in various political initiatives, but had never locked into the new movement in a sustained or final manner.(11)

Of course, no Marxist group succeeded in placing its imprint upon the movement of the 1960's, a movement that, for its part, perished without leaving many institutional bases that could help guide following generations. From that perspective, the modest successes of the small group of people around Correspondence/Facing Reality are quite remarkable. They were able to preserve and pass along a sophisticated body of analysis, making it accessible in some degree to a new generation of rebels and activists interested in the socialist transformation of society. If the influence was less than it might have been, it was far greater than that of many larger and better-financed groups. Many of the books and pamphlets produced remain, and in the light of the Polish strikes of 1980, the ideas developed by James and his groups are more relevant than ever.


From Urgent Tasks #12, 1981 a special on C.L.R James that was also publised as the book C.L.R James: His Life and Work, edited by Paul Buhle. For a similar piece from the same collection see Ferrucio Gambino's Only Connect

1. This memoir has been written without consulting any written materials from the time covered. As requested by the editor, I focused on my perception of the influence of the thought of C. L. R. James on individuals who later became involved with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and on the influence of James on my own thinking.
2. When the names of political groups and their publications are identical, I have used italics to indicate the publication and regular typeface to indicate the group.
3. Scholars trying to evaluate the ideological orientation and level of various Black groups in Detroit (1955- 1970) should be wary when dealing with printed materials. The divergence between rhetoric and reality can be enormous, as outlandish language and extreme positions were tactics used to influence politicians, funders, and political foes. These materials often were deliberately misleading.
4. When James Boggs' The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook was published in 1963, it was widely admired in Detroit radical circles. I believe it was read by almost every person who later became a member of the League's Executive Committee.
5. A contrast can be shown here with the immediate influence of a man like Harry Haywood. Long before Haywood's Black Bolshevik was published in 1978, his views and experiences were known to the Detroit radicals through extensive personal contact. Haywood lived in John Watson's home for a short period. Suck an intimacy never developed with James, and I think I am the only Detroit radical of my circle to have made the effort of visiting James in Great Britain in the early 1960's
6. Luke Tripp had a long history of political activism and was a member off the seven-man Executive Committee of the League, its organizational center. Charles Johnson was a prominent activist in Detroit until he moved to New York City in the mid-1960's. He remained in personal contact with the League but did not become involved in its affairs in any significant fashion.
7. Mike Hamlin and John Watson were members of the Executive Committee of the League and frequent public spokespeople.
8. General Baker and John Williams were members of the Executive Committee of the League
9. There was a strong self-publishing movement among 'Black writers in the city, as Black writers were then virtually excluded from literary anthologies of major publishing houses. Dudley Randall began the influential Broadside Press in the 1960's. His press and mine had one joint venture, a wall poster by M. B. Tolson. This kind of interaction between the Black artistic community and radicals was considerable but totally unstructured. Glanton Dowdell, sometime artist, sometime stickup man. and a League activist, was another figure who could bridge culture and politics
10. Cockrel was a member of the Executive Committee of the League and its legal voice.
11. Boggs was asked to be part of the pre-League and then League activities, but a role could never be negotiated

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Nov 15 2015 23:18

I know this has been around foever.... Just nevha had a chance to read until now