The search for a useable past: an interview with Paul Buhle on Radical America

An interview of Paul Buhle, the founder of the radical journal, Radical America.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 9, 2015

In 1967, Paul Buhle founded Rad­i­cal Amer­ica. The jour­nal pub­lished sophis­ti­cated inves­ti­ga­tions of the strug­gles of the day, from black lib­er­a­tion to fem­i­nism; intro­duced Amer­i­can read­ers to a wide range of polit­i­cal cur­rents, such as Ital­ian autonomism; and explored Amer­i­can rad­i­cal his­tory, par­tic­u­larly the 1930s, for inspi­ra­tion. In this inter­view, Paul Buhle dis­cusses the his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture that gave rise to the project, the journal’s aims, and the Amer­i­can rad­i­cal tra­di­tion. Most of the journal’s issues have been dig­i­tized here.

Salar Mohan­desi: What was Rad­i­cal Amer­ica?

Paul Buhle: First of all, I wish to say that I am deeply grat­i­fied by the editor’s inter­est in this seem­ingly ancient his­tory. I offer my heart­felt greet­ings to young com­rades (and oth­ers) read­ing this impor­tant journal.

Rad­i­cal Amer­ica was a rad­i­cal polit­i­cal jour­nal that grew out of the cam­pus New Left, espe­cially the Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­tic Soci­ety (SDS), of the 1960s. I moved to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin in 1967, and worked with the local SDS chap­ter to put out the jour­nal. Madi­son was a spe­cial cen­ter for anti-imperialist actions in the 1960s-70s. It drew upon old iso­la­tion­ist, World War I-variety, ele­ments of mem­ory; Jew­ish red dia­per baby mem­o­ries, from Chicago and Mil­wau­kee as well as New York; and from a deep Chris­t­ian anti-imperialism, the hard­est to under­stand, but a real thing for many peo­ple, includ­ing leaders.

Rad­i­cal Amer­ica may have been among the last left-wing jour­nals printed on a single-sheet press, the pages “col­lated” by com­rades, then sta­pled copy by copy, and mailed out, very cheaply, to the SDS chap­ters and indi­vid­ual sub­scribers. At first, it was typed on a green plas­tic sur­face that allowed easy cor­rec­tion for errors. By 1969, it was type­set free or at low cost in “Move­ment” offices. It was “laid out” on tables, with comics or poems added to text. Some­times, the printer (a vol­un­teer) would lay in spe­cial col­ored paper sec­tions. The anar­chist col­lec­tive in Detroit led by Fredy Perl­man that took over pro­duc­tion in 1970 described the process as a com­mu­nity mobi­liza­tion, and the pay­ments received allowed that press to continue.

I would add that, from there, the Rad­i­cal Amer­ica reader who worked hard­est to get the issue around was most likely to be the activist who worked in the off-campus book­store, the book-reader of the SDS chap­ter. We also engaged the unusual older sub­scriber, some aged 70, 80, or even older, who often had retained a spe­cial sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the pre-1940 or pre-1930 or even pre-1920 Left. In their much younger days, rad­i­cals had seemed less ideologically-confined or defined, hap­pier and more con­fi­dent of socialism’s final vic­tory. This insight prob­a­bly sent me off into found­ing the Oral His­tory of the Amer­i­can Left, with spe­cial empha­sis on octo­ge­nar­i­ans, from 1976 for­ward (the archives are at New York University’s Tami­ment Library).

When the Old Left of the 1930s-40s was wind­ing down, activists used to jest that groups with news­pa­pers had become news­pa­pers with groups, which is to say, prac­ti­cally all they could man­age was to put out a pub­li­ca­tion, a task which kept the group together. Actu­ally, the Social­ist Labor Party had been that way with the Weekly Peo­ple, prac­ti­cally since Daniel DeLeon died in 1914. Leaflets would be passed out as well, branch meet­ings held, some­times edu­ca­tional cam­paigns run for office, with­out any seri­ous expec­ta­tion of win­ning. In the Left at large out­side the Com­mu­nist Party, the news­pa­per was or became after the late 1940s the main thing, at least until some small groups began pub­lish­ing mag­a­zines (and not merely party jour­nals), begin­ning with the Amer­i­can Social­ist of the 1950s. Rad­i­cal Amer­ica was a jour­nal with­out a party but not with­out a con­stituency: reduced to its gen­er­a­tional core, the non­sec­tar­ian New Left and its sur­vivors broadly shar­ing anti-imperialist, fem­i­nist, eco­log­i­cal val­ues but also a deter­mi­na­tion to hold onto work­ing class expec­ta­tions and the impor­tance of this history.

What were the aims of the journal?

We founded Rad­i­cal Amer­ica in the 1960s to recu­per­ate what was called, by rad­i­cal his­to­ri­ans in those years, a “use­able past,” that is, some­thing to build upon. The prob­lem we faced was an intel­lec­tual paucity in the young gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals brought to con­scious­ness by civil rights and anti­war and anti-imperialist impulses: they had sin­cer­ity and polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, at least some polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, but what they lacked was intel­lec­tual depth, or any per­spec­tive on the his­tory of the US Left.

So, in this sense, per­haps Rad­i­cal Amer­ica really began in the base­ment of the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois library archives, dur­ing the Fall of 1965, when I became spokesman for the SDS chapter/student anti­war move­ment. I was deter­mined to grasp what I had learned in my brief sojourn in the Social­ist Labor Party, and the ear­li­est Marx­ist years of Daniel DeLeon, the social­ist leader of the 1890s, was my sub­ject. The issues of the weekly social­ist news­pa­per The Peo­ple had not been micro­filmed yet, and so I flipped through the yel­lowed pages, while think­ing of what could be done on cam­pus. Why did the US Left fail? What are lessons that can be learned? And what hid­den strengths – hid­den most of all from us, gen­er­a­tions later – can be grasped by social his­tory, use of non-English lan­guages, and so on? These were the ques­tions that ani­mated Rad­i­cal Amer­ica.

Why do you think there was this intel­lec­tual paucity you describe?

Well, this moves us beyond the lim­its of the Rad­i­cal Amer­ica milieu, but allows a wider per­spec­tive on the con­text. Before tack­ling this ques­tion, one broad gen­er­al­iza­tion must be borne in mind. The lead­er­ship of the New Left, and like­wise the rank and file activists in most places, came dis­pro­por­tion­ately by way of a kind of fam­ily con­ti­nu­ity. That is to say: out of the more than half-million Amer­i­cans who actu­ally joined the Com­mu­nist Party of the 1920s-40s, or more likely were active in unions, fra­ter­nal, cul­tural asso­ci­a­tions and insur­ance schemes at the CP periph­eries, there were par­ents, uncles, aunts and grand­par­ents of many, many New Left activists. The young activists, grow­ing up on fam­ily mem­o­ries, often became active in high school, espe­cially in New York, and thereby came to col­lege pre­pared to lead. As anti-racists, they could be fear­less. But their par­ents or other rel­a­tives were also, for the most part, embit­tered against the Com­mu­nist Party’s embrace of the USSR and against the rigid ide­ol­ogy and bureau­cracy of the Party experience.

“Marx­ist The­ory,” as it was under­stood and preached at the time, seemed to them to be part of the hang­over that was con­sid­ered hack­neyed and use­less, or worse, a means for leadership-types to bully the rank and file activists who did most of the actual work. These young, mostly Jew­ish rad­i­cals absorbed more Marx­ism, and more use­ful Marx­ism, than they gen­er­ally admit­ted to out­siders. But they mostly did not speak of it openly, partly because so many of their par­ents or oth­ers had been per­se­cuted by the FBI, but also because they did not seek to dwell on “the Russ­ian ques­tion,” pre­fer­ring other the­o­ret­i­cal mat­ters – and real orga­niz­ing activity.

At the same time, their embrace of Pop­u­lar Front-era cul­ture was such that cam­pus the­atri­cals with Brecht, film soci­ety show­ings with Casablanca (and many other films con­nected with the Hol­ly­wood black­lis­tees) and such helped bind these peo­ple together and to draw out­siders such as myself to them. They, the men in par­tic­u­lar, were also huge base­ball fans, and deeply felt the racial issues of their young years in sports terms – a way for ordi­nary Amer­i­cans to under­stand the crimes of racism. They grasped the lessons their par­ents had learned with great effort: to break through, beyond the stereo­types of “the Marx­ist,” it was best to go by a round­about route.

Marx­ist the­ory in any for­mal, sophis­ti­cated form was not really avail­able until near the end of the 1960s, when books, trans­la­tions and new texts began rush­ing out – and never ceased even when the move­ments faded. To speak for myself, the pre-1965 pur­suit of Marx­ist phi­los­o­phy found me read­ing old edi­tions of Labri­ola, the great, Hegelian-minded Ital­ian Marx­ist of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional; or chaf­ing at the philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings of Plekhanov, pub­lished in Moscow; and only after a while dis­cov­er­ing that the Eco­nomic and Philo­soph­i­cal Man­u­scripts of 1844 had already begun to reframe advanced intel­lec­tual dis­cus­sions in Europe, uncov­er­ing the roots of “alien­ation,” an almost mag­i­cal con­cept for we alien­ated young radicals.

The world of avail­able rev­o­lu­tion­ary writ­ings was so small, for instance, that Gramsci’s ideas appeared sec­ond­hand, in sum­maries. And the first sub­stan­tial Rosa Lux­em­burg essays avail­able (from Monthly Review Press, its list so small in the mid-1960s that I gob­bled up all the books) had an imprint, “A RADICAL AMERICA BOOK,” because the edi­tor was among our cir­cle. Beyond C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon, “Third World Marx­ism” was largely a mys­tery, with pub­li­ca­tions of Cuban and other anti-imperialist writ­ers often framed in Soviet-style Marx­ist terms, as unin­spir­ing as their rev­o­lu­tion­ary efforts were truly inspiring.

The avail­able Marx­ism of the early and mid­dle 1960s at large, offered in pam­phlets and study groups, was too often a “party Marx­ism” of var­i­ous Left enti­ties, and the­o­ret­i­cally lim­ited by almost any mea­sure­ment. The pur­pose of “party Marx­ism” was to cre­ate loyal cadre, not to encour­age cre­ative, let alone inde­pen­dent, thinking.

To come back to the con­trast between activism and the­ory in that time: even small­ish groups that could and did, for instance, play an impor­tant role in the sol­i­dar­ity group, the “Fair Play for Cuba Com­mit­tee,” or that other more famous Trot­sky­ist ini­tia­tive, the encour­age­ment of Mal­colm X to come closer to social­ist, anti-imperialist impulses. The Social­ist Work­ers Party, cru­cial in both of these, lived intel­lec­tu­ally in the world of the 1940s where work­ers were about to become rad­i­cal­ized thanks to the devel­op­ment of a van­guard that did not yet exist (par­don the short­hand). Still smaller groups, in this case speak­ing of “Mao­ism” – essen­tially the Pro­gres­sive Labor Move­ment, anti-revisionist but soon (for a while) avowedly Maoist – was yet more crude in its for­mu­la­tions and cadre-building notions.

And yet, in the vac­uum of any­thing like vital Marx­ist move­ments, a few thou­sand young peo­ple draw­ing con­clu­sions about cap­i­tal­ism moved toward these par­ties and oth­ers (includ­ing the CPUSA), learned what they could, and even­tu­ally moved away again.

By 1970, tens of thou­sands of young peo­ple swore their devo­tion to some kind of Marx­ism, and hun­dreds of thou­sands to “rev­o­lu­tion,” with­out much clar­ity of what “rev­o­lu­tion” might mean. Many of them, as col­lege stu­dents, read widely. How much they absorbed of Marx­ism would remain, for most of us, a mystery.

This would indeed con­firm, in my gen­er­a­tion, a famil­iar pat­tern within the his­tory of the US Left: the Com­mu­nist party often had a mem­ber­ship turnover of up to 80% per year in the 1930s. American-born mem­bers in par­tic­u­lar had lit­tle patience with weekly meet­ings. The Com­mu­nist, a monthly the­o­ret­i­cal mag­a­zine, was lit­tle read, but widely and cor­rectly con­sid­ered bor­ing and not use­ful for prac­ti­cal tasks. The Daily Worker had a lively sports sec­tion, and even comic strips; these were the favorite pages for most work­ing class read­ers. By the later 1960s, there were hun­dreds of local “under­ground” news­pa­pers appear­ing more or less monthly, sold for a quar­ter, giv­ing news and inter­pre­ta­tions but also art, poetry and other enter­tain­ments that young read­ers enjoyed. Entirely local in char­ac­ter, these news­pa­pers cre­ated and sus­tained an audi­ence. Like the “under­ground comics” (of which Rad­i­cal Amer­ica Komiks was one), they had dis­ap­peared by the later 1970s, vic­tims of chang­ing moods but also a police crack­down on “Head Shops.”

To sum up: the New Left had shal­low intel­lec­tual roots, but no more shal­low than the pre­vi­ous Marx­ist move­ments in the United States.

Given this con­text, what, then, were the major the­o­ret­i­cal influ­ences on the journal?

From 1967, some of the major intel­lec­tual influ­ences upon my own cir­cle included his­to­ri­ans E.P. Thomp­son, William Apple­man Williams, and econ­o­mists Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran, that is, those offer­ing us work­ing class his­tory and the study of impe­ri­al­ism. But I do not exclude, for myself, Daniel DeLeon (1852-1914), for­got­ten theorist-popularist of rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism and of the IWW (Indus­trial Work­ers of the World). In the pre-1920 era, hopes to abol­ish the state in favor of work­ers’ coun­cils were widely accepted. We, many of us in the New Left, had sim­i­lar visions of demo­c­ra­tic local­ism and “stu­dent syn­di­cal­ism,” a phrase we bor­rowed from the French stu­dent movements.

By 1968, and for most if not all RA edi­tors until at least the mid­dle 1970s, the Trinidadian-born pan-Africanist C.L.R. James was seen as a major influ­ence. He brought together cul­tural (includ­ing sports) his­tory, work­ers’ and peas­ants’ strug­gles, phi­los­o­phy, and the par­tic­u­lar saga of the Anglo­phone Caribbean (he had been the lead­ing intel­lec­tual in Trinidad, ban­ished by Prime Min­is­ter Eric Williams, his for­mer stu­dent, only a few years ear­lier). He envi­sioned the dis­so­lu­tion of the State by peo­ple strug­gling against it, and although this was not called “syn­di­cal­ism,” it had a cer­tain his­tory out­side both social democ­racy and the Lenin­ist Left. Tim Hec­tor, C.L.R. James’ pan-African dis­ci­ple on the island of Antigua – I later wrote a biog­ra­phy of Tim, after his untimely death—was also think­ing along these lines. We would also have read Marx and (some) Lenin, but mainly “through the eyes” of more recent writers.

What are some of the major issues you published?

Per­haps I can give a bet­ter fla­vor of our edi­tors, writ­ers, and read­ers by men­tion­ing the “best­sellers” of our work. First, Rad­i­cal Amer­ica Komiks, 1969, ridi­cul­ing impe­ri­al­ism, but also sex­ual repres­sion, while cel­e­brat­ing mar­i­juana and youth cul­ture. It sold 30,000 copies and attracted seri­ous atten­tion from the FBI, and was sold mostly in drug para­pher­na­lia “head shops” or from SDS tables on cam­pus. Sec­ond, the C.L.R. James anthol­ogy (but also an accom­pa­ny­ing Black Power/Workers’ Power issue, heav­ily attached to Detroit’s League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers), each sold per­haps 8,000, with class­room assign­ments in Michi­gan. And third, a Women’s Lib­er­a­tion issue that con­tained an essay used widely by women’s his­tory classes, in reprinted forms, for some years, prob­a­bly 7,000. Other issues: 4,000 tops. With the excep­tion of these issues, all oth­ers lost money. The mag­a­zine was sub­si­dized by small dona­tions and of course by no salaries for the staff.

How did Rad­i­cal Amer­ica relate to the social move­ments, orga­ni­za­tions, and par­ties unfold­ing all around at that time?

The jour­nal was “asso­ci­ated” with SDS and could not become more organic because the staff of the National Office changed over rapidly. It was sold at dis­count to SDS mem­bers and chap­ters. After 1970, this con­nec­tion ceased, and Rad­i­cal Amer­ica became, for a few years, the unof­fi­cial jour­nal of the “col­lec­tives” that sprung up in local com­mu­ni­ties, thanks to those thou­sands of us who left cam­puses for blue col­lar set­tings. Our cir­cles were dis­tinct from either New Com­mu­nist Move­ment (NCM) fac­tions or the rel­a­tively few, but sta­ble, Com­mu­nist Party-related local groups, because the short-lived tabloids of our friends were more influ­enced by the dope-smoking, loose, humor­ous types, in con­trast to the NCM peo­ple (many of them to become, per­son­ally, or close friends and com­rades in local activ­ity… after they aban­doned the orga­ni­za­tions) who were more proper, more “uptight,” cut­ting their hair to look proper, and so on.

It is impor­tant to add: nobody had the “Cor­rect Answer” of what to do after 1970. The fac­tory shut-downs made con­tin­ued work prob­lem­atic. Many of the best peo­ple went to work on Safety and Health activ­i­ties funded from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which explains the con­tra­dic­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. Oth­ers, mainly from the CP-oriented, took staff jobs in unions like 1199. The most suc­cess­ful set up Team­sters for Democ­racy and Labor Notes; they could be best described as affa­ble Trotskyists.

How did we relate? I left the jour­nal in late 1973 but in the decades after, as in the early 1970s, the task could be called: sol­i­dar­ity. And expla­na­tion, his­tor­i­cal depth, a sense of how things worked at the very bot­tom lev­els, between activists and ordi­nary work­ing peo­ple. Rad­i­cal Amer­ica when I left, and after­ward, tried to relate to the stu­dent from a blue col­lar home, to the low-status white col­lar worker, and to those who were keep­ing up the strug­gle of the 1960s in what­ever ways pos­si­ble. Sol­i­dar­ity move­ments with Cen­tral Amer­ica, anti-racist move­ments at home, new ways of grap­pling with the chang­ing con­di­tions fac­ing labor: these would be, with fem­i­nism, gay rights, and ecol­ogy the lead­ing thoughts. I was sorry there was too lit­tle poetry in the mag­a­zine after my exit, and too few comics.

Look­ing back now, what were some of the great­est chal­lenges you faced with Rad­i­cal Amer­ica?

Most of all that after 1970 or 1973, the mass move­ments did not really exist as before. What we had assumed, as young peo­ple engaged in strug­gles day and night, with huge excite­ment and great opti­mism, was no longer true and would not be true again in any sus­tained way despite many hope­ful moments. We knew, read, and dis­cussed a great deal more lit­er­a­ture, but we had less prac­ti­cal use for our learn­ing except, of course, to teach, play a role in union and other move­ments, and seek to pass along our knowl­edge and our insights.

Paul Buhle founded Radical America at age 22, in 1967 and grew into the part. He left the Board in 1973, founded the inconsistently annual Cultural Correspondence (1975-83), the Oral History of the American Left (NYU) and co-founded the Rhode Island Labor History Society, during the same period. He has since been active in assorted movements and in publishing books, mainly comics since 2005.

Salar Mohandesi is an editor of Viewpoint and a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Originally posted: March 2, 2015 at Viewpoint Magazine