Indispensable or irrelevant: Which way for communists?
A response to the Nelson Peery interview
Luis J. Rodriguez
Platypus Review #85 | April 2016
THE PLATYPUS REVIEW PUBLISHED an interview with Nelson Peery on December 6, 2015, not long after his death.1 Nelson was a 92-year-old revolutionary communist with more than 75 years experience in the political growth of Marxist study and organizing in the United States. He was for almost forty years my teacher and guide. I helped found with Nelson and hundreds of other revolutionaries the Communist Labor Party (CLP), the National Organizing Committee (NOC), and the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA). Nelson was a brilliant visionary and theoretician who brought essential knowledge to all the organizations he helped create. I honor my time with these organizations and Nelson’s stalwart leadership.
However, in the aforementioned interview, Nelson misrepresents the facts and circumstances about my resignation in 2011 from LRNA. There’s a deep disconnect from the man many knew and loved and the one who in that interview dismissed my contributions and sullied my understanding. Up until now, I have not addressed these issues in public since they were internal to the organization. I harbored no open animosity toward Nelson or LRNA, even when members were told I disagreed with the political line or that I should not be worked with politically. I never disagreed with LRNA’s program or political resolution. And I worked hard to build LRNA, make breakthroughs, study, teach, and recruit.
Still I was targeted for removal, being pushed out, after I happened to disagree with Nelson and a couple of leading members. Not in a hostile manner, yet this in itself was “intolerable.” LRNA’s National Office could not maintain their integrity in the face of the issues I brought openly to them. They resorted to what you see in Nelson’s statements, which, regrettably, are on the Internet for the world to see.
The most principled thing now is to clarify what happened. I would have preferred for Nelson’s interview and my response to appear while he was alive. To be clear, there are LRNA members who are brave, active, and conscientious thinkers, teachers, writers, and organizers. Nonetheless, what I have to say should have lessons for all of us, beyond Nelson, LRNA, or me. I offer this in the spirit of the ongoing maturity of anyone who claims the mantle of conscious revolutionary.
In early 2011, I became aware that Nelson told at least two LRNA members that a “purge” would be initiated against a couple of other members and myself. Yet despite Nelson’s declarations outside of collectives, although doing so was against LRNA’s own precepts, I was never presented with any charges for violations of my membership.
Concerned, I wrote a series of internal emails to LRNA’s National Office, with copies to other leading collectives, insisting on a response to what I had heard. Instead I was attacked with claims I was slandering Nelson by making my inquiries. Members of other collectives stayed silent, including those in the Los Angeles area and in the committee I was responsible to. This went on for months, with written exchanges back and forth, but to no resolution.
This talk of a purge aimed at me felt like a betrayal and totally unjustified. I was a member in good standing. In 40 years, I had contributed immensely and tried to step up whenever possible. At age 22, I ran for the LA school board in a “Vote Communist” campaign. In the mid-1980s, I served as editor of the People’s Tribune, traveling around the country, conducting interviews, speaking, fundraising. I used the newspapers widely and had study circles wherever possible. A talk I gave in Chicago in the early 2000s for the People’s Tribune brought some 200 people and garnered more donations than LRNA had ever done previously in that city. In another event in LA where I spoke, 75 people signed up to join. When Nelson spoke in LA in 2011, I helped bring about 15 people from my community. At the time I had a study circle of around 20 people. I paid my dues, stayed active in many struggles, including in culture and the arts, sold and used LRNA publications, and spoke on a number of occasions as a LRNA speaker. For years, I helped raise up to $5,000 a year for the organization.
Did I make mistakes? Of course—this is inevitable when people attempt to transform themselves, others, and the world around them. Proper risks and failures can provide lessons from which future success can be extracted. I also never gave up. I tried for years to augment what I learned, to engender more leaders, more revolutionaries.
Once I criticized Nelson in a collective meeting of the National Office, curiously around a year before talk of a purge emerged. I may have been confused, right or wrong, yet nobody said anything. The message was plain: Do not criticize Nelson. Later, during the exchange of emails, Nelson wrote me only once to say he sat on no leading bodies, had no internal responsibilities. Yet he was at every meeting at the central office I attended, including with the People’s Tribune, the last word on most decisions.
I finally resigned because the National Office would not do the principled thing: write me up and give me a hearing, to disclose any real violations on my part, and/or hold Nelson accountable for what he was telling others outside of collectives. A long-time member who spoke out against what happened to me was later expelled. This is not the conduct of a dynamic and healthy democratic centralist organization.
Ironically, Nelson says in his interview that something similar happened to him in the Communist Party, USA: “My differences with the Party were based on internal legality. As the pressure against the Party increased, it became necessary for decisions to be made by a very small group of people, on the spot more or less. This tendency to have people not responsible by law to the apparatus arose out of necessity and finally ended up destroying the Party. It was expressed by the ability to throw people with whom you disagreed out of the organization (emphasis mine).”
This is no way to treat leading and active cadre. People are an organization’s most valuable resource. There has to be criticism, self-criticism, and a place to examine disagreements. Study, analysis, debate, and the interchange of experiences and ideas are how we grow, how we arrive at agreements. The shared agreements—based on a common theoretical foundation—are our collectivity. I never acted against these agreements or undermined collectivity. Yet, I was treated as a pariah, an “enemy,” and then lied about. Cadre deserve better than this.
I quit to leave on my terms. Not because I am above any collective or legitimate process, but because that process was being violated. In fact, despite all denials, talk about a purge proved true. Not long after I left, a memo appeared in a LRNA document saying I had been “purged,” that I was part of a “faction” with others. Not true. I had quit. And I never “factionalized” with anybody—one of the “others” whose name appeared in the memo I had not talked to until after he was expelled, and at least two others also listed I have not talked to even now. I know what factions are: when two or more members consciously and actively work to undermine or disrupt the political line or organization. I never did this. Yet by putting this “purge” in a written memo, the National Office admitted my inquiries were valid.
I would end here, but unfortunately there are more inaccurate statements attributed to Nelson in the Platypus Review interview. For example, I never came out of the Latino or Black “nationalist” movements of the 1960s or 1970s, as he claimed. Marxists and revolutionaries within the movements of Blacks and Latinos for civil rights and against poverty of that time politicized me. I was from a working class Mexican migrant family, caught up in the throes of barrio street life, and saved by the communist mentors and activities of the time.
I never had the notion that the spontaneous movement was everything. The spontaneous movement, the working class and those of this class not working, cannot meet their needs and intrinsic aims without the strategic influence of conscious revolutionaries. And this can only happen when the objective movements of society, based on the exacerbated economic conditions, and its subjective expression, the conscious revolutionaries, are one. Integrated. Unbreakable.
I also never claimed, “Powerful individuals determine what happens in history.” Marx is clear—everything depends upon the course of social development and on the relations of social forces, even the role of the individual in history. But Marx also pointed out that under certain circumstances outstanding individuals are necessary for history to be made (Nelson says as much when he talks about Abraham Lincoln). Human beings are imbued with brains, souls, bodies, and creative potency. I am for liberating these powers, for the most creative and imaginative capacities to be brought to bear for revolution and a new society.
In the interview, Nelson also made an interesting statement about Madison, Wisconsin and the 2011 protests against Governor Scott Walker’s plan to take away public employees’ bargaining rights. “Madison is a trade-union struggle,” according to Nelson. “It’s important but very limited—a question of maintaining their rights. They [presumably me and others who either quit or were expelled from LRNA at the time] say that the trade unions are important. The trade unions have never been important.” Really? This is something Lenin, if he were alive, would contest (“trade unions are a school of communism”). Marx and Engels would as well. I understand Nelson’s points that trade unions cannot play a decisive revolutionary role, as well as their long history against Blacks in this country (although current-day public employee, food industry, and service employee unions have large numbers of black and brown workers). But again everything depends on the actual objective conditions.
At the time, what the Tea Party and other conservatives were doing was laying the basis to make Wisconsin a Right-to-Work state. Wisconsin was the birthplace of the Progressive Party under Robert La Follette in the early 20th Century. In the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin at Madison became a hotbed of student protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. And Wisconsin was the first state to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees in 1959. Now reaction—arising from the Deep South, where Right-to-Work states were born in the 1940s—set out to turn Wisconsin workers into an unorganized cheap labor source. The conscious revolutionaries did not have to concoct a national campaign against this. Tens of thousands of people were mobilized, mostly in the unions, but also others from across the state and the nation. They surrounded the Madison State Capitol Building over several weeks, at various times taking over its stairways and chambers. I had seen this before, in Mexico, when I served as a journalist in the 1980s. Indigenous people and campesinos took over several city halls in protests during terrible peso devaluations and their worst economic crisis since the Mexican Revolution. At one point in Madison, more than 100,000 people (I was there) marched with signs against capitalism, exposing the class nature of the struggle, and, yes, for collective bargaining rights.
Like all such struggles, it was mixed up with many things. The role of communists was not to stand aside or just pass out newspapers that did not even mention Madison, as the People’s Tribune initially did. This was an opportunity for revolutionaries to clarify how this struggle was a link in the chain against private property. Even LRNA’s program states, “Nothing can be accomplished until the American people hold a vision of where they want to go and what they want to be. Creating and imbuing them with such vision is the overriding task of revolutionaries and the foundation of our organization.”
Madison at that time could have been an important battle, as any social battle can be, if it helps revolutionize the practice of workers everywhere (which Marx says is a crucial aspect of ideas becoming “a material force once gripped by the masses”). Many of us in the midst of the protests knew that the trade union leadership, tied to the Democratic Party, would betray the essence of their demands. Revolutionary leadership—not just judgments and statements from outside the battlements—was needed to get beyond these constraints. Nelson, on the other hand, proclaimed this struggle was not important. By 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th Right-to-Work state in the country.
Again, all this is unfortunate. But life and truth cannot be glossed over or idealized. If these inconsistencies are not brought to light, they become what are expected of leaders. We all have to demand a higher level of accountability. These are indeed challenging times for all revolutionaries.
A new epoch
For my part, since leaving LRNA I have helped establish the Network for Revolutionary Change (NRC) in late 2011. I quit LRNA, but not the revolution. I am training other leaders and impacting social motion as widely and deeply as possible. I resolved not to stop my life-long commitments, to stay disciplined, and to keep tilling ground in this country for conscious revolutionary teachings and actions. I keep striving for this among the millions of potential revolutionaries being thrown out of their jobs and homes and impacted directly by police killings, environmental poisons, war, and by the most acute capitalist crisis to date.
Again, LRNA’s program points out: “The United States of America—indeed the entire world—is in the throes of epochal economic revolution.” It is an epoch wherein revolutionaries in a variety of associations and with all their diversity can unite along short and long term lines marked with intense scientific study (including, of course, Marxism), well thought out strategies and tactics, and advanced levels of organization.
To do otherwise—for revolutionaries to remain ineffective, scattered, and detached as they are today—is allowing the worst forms of fascism to gain the upper hand, either with Donald Trump mobilizing an alienated, mostly white, and economically ruined section of society, or Hillary Clinton, who will sound progressive and even pander to the Left, but will open doors to more war, more terror, more deprivation, and even fascism. Bernie Sanders’s campaign is helping gather much progressive and anti-fascist sentiment in this country. This is a key development, and at the same time it has to go further.
Today capitalism, largely due to electronics, is global. Immense wealth is being made daily, although poverty worldwide is growing and the gap between the poorest and richest is wider than ever. Most of these “profits” are not worth the computer chip they are counted on, but a massive military machine keeps them “viable,” intertwined also with the illicit drug trade, black markets, cheaper and cheaper labor, and modern-day slavery. War is everywhere and it has become a permanent feature of U.S. governance and dominance. The so-called War on Terror has created more terror, and as we have seen, this terror is now on our front steps. The rulers are less and less able to rule—their every move makes our world unsafe, unhealthier, and less free. Thus any conscious revolutionary can conclude that an environmentally clean and green world, a just and equitable society, an economy that aligns social resources to social needs, and peace at home and abroad are incompatible with global capitalism.
The circumstances, therefore, are ripening for the possibility of a new and re-imagined economic and political system run in the interests of the whole—whereby every person, regardless of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or migrant status, can have their demands for food, homes, and health met not only by aligning all resources to human and earth needs, but also by liberating everyone’s mental, physical, and spiritual attributes to be full and complete human beings.
Yet, today, where are the communists in this country? The few entrenched communists notwithstanding, too many are hard-pressed to be found, and when they are, they are generally isolated, insulated, or at each other’s throats. They are either tailing the social movements, with no significant role to play, or they are sectarian: in their narrow confines, cultish and arrogant, above the fray, or as Nelson says, “impacting nothing.”
My challenge to LRNA is to wholly and emphatically carry out the words of its own program: “The battle is class struggle. The war is for the existence of humanity. We in the League face the future with confidence. We call upon all revolutionaries to abandon sectarian differences, to unite around the practical demands of the new class and to secure humanity’s imperiled future.” Nelson is gone, but what about the other National Office members who assisted in his deceit, from the shadows, maligning those in the throes of actual struggle and strategy making. Attack me? What a waste. Yes, I am good for it—I push back. But who cares? The class struggle is bigger, in all manner of turmoil, yet with historical and other resources for what is possible, hungry for what you all have to bring. Let’s end this.
W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem, “The Second Coming”:
…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
We are in such times. So as not to leave the “passionate intensity” to the worst, I say this is not a time to think small, push petty points, and escalate the discord.
What is missing is a structure, coherent and also organic to various communities, to pull the revolutionaries together in a consequential manner and to gather the energies of the working class and everyone adversely affected by the worsening conditions with vision, language, and orientation. This includes shaping the real unity of objective and subjective, merging theory and practice, and moving decisively toward the challenge at hand: political, economic, and social realignment. This is not a time for one leader, one guru, one way of thinking. It is time for each of us to engage with where society is going by our own means—to contribute from our competences and geniuses, thoroughly prepared for the tasks at hand, each with innate authority and responsibility, to be seeds and nurturers of both the immediate demands of social motion, as well as to represent, clarify, and pave the way for the future.
To all revolutionaries, let’s work together to make this happen. It is time to fulfill this momentous calling, to be beacons for where society needs to go, to be the midwives of a new world straining to be born. |P
See Edward Remus, “The Most Revolutionary Weapon: An Interview with Nelson Peery,” Platypus Review 81, November 2015, available online at </2015/11/29/revolutionary-weapon-interview-nelson-peery/>. ↩