“Worse than the 80s”: An interview with Griffith Jones
Platypus Review 161 | November 2023
On December 24, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society member Desmund Hui interviewed Griffith Jones in Hong Kong. Jones, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party (United States), who turned to labor and solidarity work in the Washington, DC area with the Nicaragua Information Committee, has lived and worked in Hong Kong and China since 1996, and has worked with a revolutionary socialist group there for the past seven years. An edited transcript follows.
Desmund Hui: How did you get involved in the Left before the 1980s and the Nicaraguan solidarity movement?
Griffith Jones: I transferred into Princeton from a Japanese university where I did my coursework in Japanese, which is how I got into Princeton, having failed to get in after high school. One month in or so, I was standing in a long line in cold weather when I met a Puerto Rican student who had arrived at Princeton as a committed Marxist. He found several others too.
We read Marx and discussed revolution. We intervened a bit in the student protests against the invasion of Iran in 1979, and we participated in the boycott of South Africa, but it was more just going to the daily protests. That’s how I became a communist. I read Trotsky. I read Ernest Mandel, whose From Class Society to Communism: An Introduction to Marxism (1977) is still a pretty good economic primer; it’s common sense. Mandel asks us to consider, if society had its needs met, how many unrealized geniuses might exist within the population. Think about how much richer society would be, not only economically but in every sense, if we had a socialist society of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
I transferred, on Princeton’s dime, to National Taiwan University for a year as a regular student, and studied modern Chinese history from the Opium War on. But nothing that I had seen and learned in Japan or in Taiwan changed my mind about the fundamental validity of a Marxist analysis of the world. Interestingly — not to discredit them — but my fellow Marxist study-group members were all going to Stony Brook or elsewhere to study sociology or pursue postgraduate studies, and I thought, “I’m going to find a working-class job with a union.”
I moved to Washington with my girlfriend — now ex-wife — and I did gypsy auto-repair work for a while. I was looking around for a political party to join, and, though it wasn’t my dream, the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.) (SWP) made the most sense, and it certainly had the tradition.
DH: Why did you think the SWP was the best around?
GJ: They weren’t the Spartacist League; they weren’t Stalinists; they weren’t Maoists. The Maoists and the Sparts I met — I wondered, “what is the matter with you?” I didn’t say that, but their thinking and their analysis — e.g., that the Cultural Revolution was the pinnacle of human civilization — made me think, “what rock did you crawl out from under?”
Who else was there, actually? The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was being formed, but that was in the 80s. That was Michael Harrington’s effort to counter Reagan, just like Bernie became the counter to Trump.
The SWP was the best because it had the legacy of the 1930s, and it was organizing the Teamsters. The SWP had played a major role and was one of the better actors in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
It was in 1981 that I moved to Washington, looked up the SWP, immediately started doing tables, and joined. When I joined they were already in the “turn to industry,” but in the DC office we literally had people driving two and a half hours each way to West Virginia to work in an aluminum mill. I can respect that, but what kind of life is it spending five or six hours a day on the road, and what is your social contact with your co-workers?
They decided that the DC metro was an industrial job that we all could join, so I did. I’ve been working in electronics since I was 12, and I became an automatic train control technician — a labor aristocrat no less. I became an active member of Local 689 of Amalgamated Transit Union, 5,500-strong in the nation’s capital. That was potential power, although the meetings were maybe 40 people, with all the union politics. But I shouldn’t gripe too much: I was vocal and I was recognized. I ran for shop-steward; I didn’t win, but I still got several hundred votes. I was an avowed communist; it wasn’t something I was hiding. This was the 80s, in DC of all places.
DH: What do you mean? There weren’t many communists in the 80s?
GJ: I mean “Morning in America” (1984). The rise of Ronald Reagan was a time of real widespread reaction. There were the Reagan Democrats, there were occasionally hostile people, who would knock the paper out of your hand. I said, “in DC of all places,” because you had the FBI, the Pentagon, so many government workers — a lot of them involved in justice, the security state, etc.; it made it more challenging.
DH: You were already involved in the Marxist Left before the Nicaraguan Revolution. What did the Nicaraguan Revolution represent to you when you took your activism in that direction?
GJ: With the SWP, I was selling a book of speeches by Sandinista leaders; I was selling the SWP’s Militant. We had two full-time comrades living in and reporting from Managua. Every issue had something about Nicaragua, from them or from other comrades around the country. And yet I don’t remember any solidarity activity for Nicaragua in the three years I was in the SWP, 1981 to 83.
The SWP, for at least the last year, was utterly consumed by internal struggle, which became a split but started as mass ejections, after which there was Solidarity (U.S.) and other offshoots from the SWP, who wanted me to join them because I was dead against the SWP leadership. They announced to a large, joint DC-Baltimore gathering — over 60 people — that they were postponing the biannual congress that they’ve had every year since 1928, because they hadn’t accomplished everything they had set for themselves at the last one, so they didn’t have to have another one. Not like, “we need to meet because we haven’t accomplished everything we set for ourselves two years ago and we need to understand why and then rectify,” not that! It was Jack Barnes’s cult. As Barry Sheppard’s The Party, Volume 2 (2012) makes clear, Sheppard confronted Jack Barnes about the trend of the SWP becoming a cult in 1978, three years before I was involved.
What I understood about the Sandinista Revolution before leaving the SWP was what I read from what we published. It seemed worth supporting a popular uprising that was making progress in terms of the standard of living for the masses, that had fought a revolutionary guerilla struggle against a U.S.-supported brutal dictator.
DH: And after you visited Nicaragua?
GJ: In the fall of 83, there was an ad that appeared in The Nation, In These Times, and other Left publications that said something like, “Join the harvest! Help the Sandinista Revolution!” I and two others that had left the SWP just months before agreed to go. It didn’t cost much: just airfare; you’re living on a plantation there, it wasn’t a luxury cruise.
I spent some time on a plantation picking coffee, but we went back into the city because of the connections that I had through my then partner, a Columbian-American who had been in the SWP for a long time and was close to members of the FSLN in DC. We met with her friends, and they introduced us to other people in the FSLN. We talked about the need for building organization in the U.S., but it was general. It was all good, though I did notice a tendency, especially among male FSLN leaders — they were almost all male — to soak up the groupie vibe, a revolutionary-as-celebrity vibe. Young FSLN spokespeople were mobbed by a mix of North American and other international solidarity activists as if they were demigods. Maybe it was jealousy on my part, but I wasn’t particularly jealous of that. I respected what the Revolution was doing, and I figured it takes all kinds, and they recruited people to fight a guerrilla war, and now they were in a different role.
Then we came back. The people who had organized the brigades put those of us who had come from the greater Washington metropolitan area in touch with each other, which is exactly how you should do it. We contacted each other, immediately met, and said, “let’s build something; let’s share what we saw firsthand with as many people as possible.” So we formed the Washington Area Nicaragua Information Committee (NICA).
DH: Could you describe the solidarity activism you did when you returned to the U.S.?
GJ: We got together, maybe 12 people from that first harvest. We started by asking, what’s the best way to build solidarity and to stop the aggression that we see ramping up right now, which is an effort to kill the Nicaraguan Revolution? Then we proceeded to the kind of organization we wanted to build. First principle was to volunteer — we’re not going to hire a staff person to tell us what to do, that was utterly anathema. We only had one dedicated person who was our bookkeeper and kept that role throughout. We had a Colombian woman who was an academic researcher; she mostly did academic-type translations. Others were connected to the Latin-American community. We created a mission statement that references the anti-imperialist movement from the time of Mark Twain against the Spanish-American War, the invasion of the Philippines. It also referenced the anti-Vietnam War movement in terms of the movement we wanted to help build.
DH: Did you think of yourselves as part of the tradition of the American anti-war movements, especially the anti-Vietnam War movement? Did you see that as your model?
GJ: Yes. Except how many Americans went to Vietnam, besides Jane Fonda? Not many. How many Americans spoke Vietnamese or could read Vietnamese? Even fewer. Jane Fonda certainly didn’t speak Vietnamese. But Spanish? There were millions of people. DC had a huge Latino population. They came from all over, not just Florida Cubans, but California Chicano, Mexican-Americans, New Jersey Puerto Ricans.
We were told how important it would be to support the Nicaragua Network, the national office of the Nicaragua solidarity movement in DC. We agreed we could dedicate some of our time to that. We wanted to build an anti-intervention coalition. We wanted to send more brigadistas every year, partly because just the physical presence of Americans in the countryside of Nicaragua hindered the Contra assault — that was the whole raison d’être. We also hoped that they could come back and help us and build our organization. The brigades weren’t much of an organization builder, but that wasn’t the primary purpose.
We wanted to raise material aid; we did it by things like selling Nicaraguan coffee, hence we had a “coffee-in” in Dupont Circle, where we sold coffee and coffee beans saying, “support Nicaragua, support the Sandinista Revolution, buy coffee.” We said we would volunteer with the Nicaragua Network to provide needed manpower, since they only had a handful of people at that point. The problem was that they were shambolic; they were just ridiculous. It would take them days to organize a mail-in to send to several thousand people. I wasn’t a consultant then, but a consultant would have had a heyday. We went in, asked what the job was, pulled together, and knocked it out in three hours and ordered pizza along the way. Then we got asked to write the political update for the next mail-in.
DH: For the Nicaragua Network?
GJ: Yes, and they said, “you can’t say that Congress has been complicit; we don’t want to discourage people from lobbying.” Our response was, first, “do you want to educate people or do you just want them to do what you want them to do?” Second, “why aren’t we asking people what they need? This is a national organization; we should be providing resources, case studies, templates.” Their answer was, “No, no, no. We have a project; it’s the Nicaragua solidarity campaign, it’s important, but we’re waiting to get details from Managua on what they need us to ask for.”
DH: Before we get into that, I want to raise a broader question: how did you distinguish your socialist, or at least Leftist, organization from other solidarity organizations?
GJ: A major group was the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which was national. They were big, well-organized, and they had a local presence. But they were mouthpieces for the FSLN. That’s how they conceived themselves. The Nicaragua Network was supposed to be broader to the extent that the Sandinista Revolution was being sold as a national-bourgeois project, a cooperation with the national bourgeoisie and encompassing the religious groups and Chamorro, the big domestic capitalists other than Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his cronies. That was the line.
So you kind of thought that the Nicaragua Network would be a little broader in its approach rather than just saying they were the mouthpiece of the FSLN. And they didn’t ever say they were the mouthpiece of the FSLN; they said they were leading the Nicaragua solidarity movement, but they actually did jack. They waited 18 months for those details from Managua on what they should put on their “Let Nicaragua Live!” campaign. Are you kidding me? This is 1984 going into 85, the Contra war is full-scale, people are being murdered, their bodies mutilated, whole agricultural collectives are being burned to the ground, and they’re waiting for details from Managua on what we should be collecting for them for material aid. It’s just too much.
There was the labor solidarity group which I was also a part of, but that was labor-focused; it brought trade unionists. Then there were the political parties involved in the solidarity movement: the SWP, the Workers World Party (WWP) — now basically PSL — and Line of March. They were going to show up and toe the FSLN line, which was basically do whatever the Nicaragua Network says. But, they weren’t telling us to do anything, they told us to wait. The message was, “the Network is back!,” when it wasn’t back at all. It had become so dormant and inactive that half a year before we went to Nicaragua one of the two staffers had tried to pack the entire office into a U-Haul and drive it to Seattle because they were from Seattle. They thought if they were going to be doing this work, collecting a paycheck, they might as well be in their hometown because they hated DC. Seriously?
On how we distinguished ourselves, instead of just getting a name of a group to sign as a sponsor for our next big protest, we would turn out and support them. If the boycotters of South Africa were boycotting gas stations, we would send a few people to help them. The Filipinos who were then overthrowing Ferdinand Marcos — we would turn out for whatever they called for. I was a contributing editor to the Young Koreans United newsletter.
Our educational / propaganda mission also distinguished us. That was at the heart of what we did. It was our first task after we had created an identity: we identified what our process was going to be. We called it, “consensus minus-one”: if everybody except one person in the group wanted to do something, we would do it. We did function mostly by consensus, it was just to say that it wasn’t absolute. We had things like a rotating chair and secretary. The bookkeeper was the only consistent thread and that was because he was good at it and willing to do it. The rotating role distinguished us from the Stalinist groups. Every Stalinist group I’ve ever seen has the chairman that chairs all the meetings. You want to encourage passivity? That’s the way to do it. You want people to feel engaged and to be confident in contributing to a meeting? Have them be the chair of the meeting, then they can appreciate what it’s like.
DH: Could you speak more on your educational activities?
GJ: Once we defined ourselves we made a brochure. It was a beauty, because we spent a long time wording it, and we got great photos. We mailed it to everybody; we handed it out on the street. We created leaflets constantly, and we would update them for specific events like a fundraiser for the Contras and Manolo Blahnik — the famous shoe guy who happened to be Nicaraguan — was going to be there.
The backs of our pamphlets had a map of Central America and U.S. military dispositions in each country, with a blurb and a little tear-away to sign up for our mail-in list. We got a lot of people to sign up to the list. Maintaining it was a major job because every time you send it out at least 10% came back with the address changed.
DH: For these leaflets, what was the substance of the education or information? What were you expecting people to do after they had read your material?
GJ: You could say that we were a bunch of rejects from some Leftist group or another, who got together and opportunistically thought we could use the Sandinista Revolution to sell a new configuration of revolutionary politics, by comparison with Nicaragua’s success, to show what needed to happen in the U.S. It wouldn’t be a fair or accurate representation, but I could see less charitable people saying such a thing. Our priority was to support the Nicaraguan Revolution, but for the sake of building a revolution movement in the U.S. That’s why the Nicaraguans were so mad with us: “What the hell are you talking about homelessness for? Why are you talking about Palestine? Why are you even talking about El Salvador? Fuck El Salvador! You work for us!” No, we don’t. We were for ourselves, and for what we believed was the best course forward for everyone, including the Sandinistas, but not for the Sandinistas above the mission of building a better society internationally.
Some people considered us Trotskyist, but that was unfair. I was the only actual former Trotskyist. We had a few DSAers, a few former Stalinists, and some co-op movement people. We had some religious people, though they gravitated towards the religious groups, whom we respected so much more than many of the political groups. I would prefer to deal with Christ-believers than fake Marxists any day.
DH: Are you calling the Sandinistas “fake Marxists”?
GJ: No, I’m calling the SWP a degenerated cult, along with the WWP, who said, “Gaddafi is an international working class hero.” There were also the Stalinists saying, “we have to work inside the Democratic Party.” They wouldn’t be caught dead saying that publicly, but of course the thrust of what they wanted to do was replace the CPUSA as the ultra Left-wing of the Democratic Party, the secret sect inside the Democrats. This is the 1980s after all, pre-Clinton.
What we did in education was great. We were constantly going to schools, churches, yoga groups, people’s homes for public dinners, whatever we could get an invite to talk about the revolution. We had slides and a loose script, points to cover. We had training for public speaking, so that even if they didn’t join us, people could come to a train before talking to their own groups and do our work for themselves. But that was nothing compared to building a coalition where you had 20 actual groups, like the Gray Panthers of Montgomery County — groups with people who would distribute the flyer that we created for the coalition. Our flyer would be multi-issue, because for a while people would hand out something that’s only talking about Nicaragua, but they got their own organizations and their own agendas, and you have to respect that. We went out of our way to not only respect their agenda but also support it. It was exhausting, frankly, but we did it.
DH: Were these the other solidarity groups?
GJ: Yeah, the Filipinos, South Koreans, Palestinians — nothing compares to having them as a multiplier. We distributed 200,000 flyers in a lead up to one demonstration and 300,000 for another. Our posters and spray painting were all over town. It was valuable not just because it was a city in America but because it was DC, and the motherfuckers in Congress, who are voting on this, can’t help but see — since Roman times and before — the writing on the wall. Of course they did all kinds of maneuvering with humanitarian aid to the Contras, etc., but those were compromises that we forced them into. They wanted the overthrow of the Sandinistas! They didn’t want those people inoculating their entire population, reducing infant mortality from 40% down to 3%. No, absolutely not! That was my point about the education: it was all the tried and true methods, from doing tables at high-traffic areas, selling buttons, T-shirts, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, all kinds of paraphernalia, coffee cups with slogans on them, and recruiting other groups to our cause. But those things have a moment, and for us the moment was about five years. Those five were pretty good, but it was a moment.
DH: You’ve made it clear that you have a lot of criticisms of the official solidarity movement. Could you elaborate on them more? What were the problems with the official solidarity movement, and why was it like that?
GJ: There were two planks to the official Nicaragua solidarity movement. First, the FSLN and their partners in the U.S, who were not just the Nicaragua Network; it was also local groups. They were basically on the board, along with some rich people, of the Nicaragua Network. The first plank that they prescribed was legislative work, to the point that they had lobbyists come in to say, “get everybody on your mailing list to write to their congresspeople, and tell them to support H.R.34972, the ‘House Amendment to Provide Humanitarian Aid to the Nicaraguan Resistance in Support of Democracy.’” What the fuck? That’s our priority? Telling everybody to call their congressperson?
The second plank was humanitarian aid, because the Sandinistas got so used to getting material aid and money flowing in from overseas, from North America, but a lot of it came from the social democratic governments of Europe. It wasn’t billions, but then again Nicaragua was a dirt-poor country with a million people, so it made a difference and it was important. The Sandinistas wanted that flow to keep going, they didn’t want it to stop. Five years in, and that’s still their number one priority. “Let Nicaragua Live!” The solidarity campaign finally got the details from Managua at the end of 85 and said, “‘Let Nicaragua Live!’ is your top priority.” No, it isn’t. Even if it were, there is no way we’re going to be raising the kind of money that we did before for a couple of reasons. One, people are a little tired of hearing about Nicaragua. Sorry! I know it’s the most important country in the world, and you do everything they tell you to do and would never question an order that came from a saint in the FSLN. Second, the FSLN is doing a lot of shit that is getting bad press, and it’s not all CIA propaganda. Sorry!
DH: What was the FSLN doing, for example?
GJ: The curtailment of civil liberties, freedom of speech. The arbitrary expulsion of any Westerner or non-Nicaraguan who voiced even the slightest question of the wisdom of doing this or that. These were not conspirators planning a counterrevolution, but well-intentioned people who dedicated their lives, but began to say, “this is going to end up hurting the Sandinista Revolution overseas.” — “Get the fuck out! Counterrevolutionary! CIA spy!” Dan La Botz’s What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution (2016) does a good job of covering this.
Some of it was incredibly stupid public-relations stuff. Daniel Ortega, coming from one of the poorest countries in the world to New York, goes out and spends thousands of dollars on the most expensive designer glasses you can buy. You thought nobody would catch onto that? That nobody would notice that? That your lobbyist told you, “this is what you have to do, you have to look your best in front of other world leaders.”
Making material, humanitarian aid the top priority in 1985 was a mistake, because you’re just going to be putting three times the effort you did before, and you’re going to get much less than half of the result.
Those were the two priorities as far as the Nicaragua Network, the FSLN were concerned. And our number one priority was to build the Stop the U.S. War in Nicaragua coalition, which meant that we worked with everybody we could. For the person I dealt with — at the embassy, he was in charge of dealing with the solidarity movement — this was all a distraction: “Yes, it’s great that you can build a large demonstration, but the focus has to be on Congress in order to stay the hand of Reagan and the U.S. war machine.” You wanted to ask, where does your understanding of politics come from? Why do you think political actors do things? One might well have asked, because it turns out — if you look at La Botz’s book — that the Sandinistas were crystal clear on their top-down Stalinist political program from day one. Consider the fact that they never held a party convention; they never held a party congress until 1990 when they lost the election. How are you deciding things? How are you coming to a conclusion on the best way forward? Oh, it sprung out of Thomas Borge and Daniel Ortega’s thumb.
DH: You called the FSLN Stalinists. What do you mean by that, besides their authoritarianism?
GJ: That might be giving them too much credit. “Bonapartist,” “Peronist,” or “caudillist” might be more correct. Stalinists hold political congresses. They may physically eliminate anybody they think is going to speak out at the party congress beforehand, but at least they go through the motions. For the Sandinistas to never even have one in 11 years is mind boggling. They said that they wanted to build a broad front: “it’s a national reconstruction; the bourgeoisie are central to our program.” They had a five-man leadership body, but three of the five were Sandinistas — two of them were known and the third was a secret Sandinista who never revealed his secret affiliation. Of the other two, one was religious, the other a big capitalist. They were Stalinist in the sense that they truly believed in a two-stage revolution, but a two-stage revolution without sharing political power with anybody. They thought they could swing it; they thought they could manage because they’re so smart.
To say it didn’t work out is a bit unfair. After all, they were facing the most powerful military power in the world, who was hell-bent on destroying them and did have billions of dollars in military bases, material; they had a mercenary army that they conjured up from former national guard officers and Argentinian torturers, who they supplied with three overflights a day, dropping out of a DC-10. It was a difficult situation, and their choices were limited by poverty, the destruction that the war to liberate the country had wrought, and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. But, they consciously said, “we’re going to be like Cuba; we’re going to follow the Cuban model.”
There was a saying I learned when I was in Nicaragua. When you want something done right, you do it the way the Cubans do, “a los cubanos.” Yet Sandanistas didn’t. They weren’t as capable or as smart as the Cuban Revolutionaries — for all their faults; I’m hardly holding them up. If you asked for the single defining thing about them — besides the internal shitslinging around the split in the SWP that’s still such a hallmark of particularly Trotskyist but most Left organizations — it was the orientation towards Cuba. So Cuba is going to be our model in the U.S. for how we build a socialist revolution, in the heart of imperialism? What on earth are you thinking? They weren’t thinking; they were just like, “the Cubans have a successful model and we don’t have any other models; the Fourth International is out; we’re not going to have anything to do with them anymore since we insulted Ernest Mandel to his face.”
DH: On Stalinism, do you think the Sandinistas capitulated to socialism in one country, the classical Trotskyist criticism of Stalinism?
GJ: Oh yeah. In that light, I have to claim credit for a slogan I patented, “Sandinismo in one country,” because that’s exactly what it was. “Everything for the Sandinista Revolution!” Except, wait a minute, what about the founding principles of Carlos Fonseca — a Stalinist, he founded the FSLN in 1962 — the historic program of redistributing the land to the peasants and self-determination, autonomy, for the Atlantic coast? “Oh,” the FSLN says, “we aren’t going to do either of those things.” But since there wasn't a party congress, there was nobody to raise their hand and say, “what about our historic program?”
It begins to beg the question, for what? A revolution that accomplishes what? Again, totally Trotskyist, but how do you build socialism without democracy? If you don’t even have internal democracy within your organization, how are you going to build a democratic process in the country as a whole? You’re not. You’re going to have mass organizations that you can look at and then give a speech in front of, and, through osmosis, absorb what they want the leadership to do. Bullshit.
DH: What happened to the solidarity movement? How and why did it end? What happened to your organization specifically?
GJ: The solidarity movement started quieting down with less and less to do. The brigades went on until 88, but once the Network took it back from the Nicaraguan Exchange, who had started the brigades, it was outsourced when we went on the first wave. It just collapsed when they attempted to do it one year. Our organization continued functioning but we asked, “what are we going to do?” We ended up supporting other groups because there wasn’t a mass movement anymore. You’re not going to build a coalition to stop the U.S. invasion of Nicaragua after it had become a dead letter. In a way, the U.S. won because, by applying that pressure combined with the Sandinistas’ failings, the Nicaraguan Revolution didn’t ignite. The mass organizations just became utterly bureaucratic. I called them Peronist, but they became more like the PRI in Mexico: a state-instantiated revolutionary party that doesn’t do anything revolutionary anymore.
I left in November of 89. By that point we weren’t needed. We continued doing things as a group that weren’t Nicaragua-specific, because we had that dual approach, which was building connections within the U.S. on domestic issues and internationally with other groups, as well as working in solidarity with Nicaragua. Nicaraguan solidarity quietly crumbled. By 89 there wasn’t any raison d’être; it wasn’t sustainable. If you want to help the Palestinians, join a Palestinian solidarity group. We weren’t going to become a clearing house. We thought of ourselves as a small wheel that’s built to drive much larger wheels, and that’s what we did in building coalitions.
DH: Would you say that NICA or your solidarity activism was successful? You seem disappointed with what happened in Nicaragua.
GJ: It was absolutely successful in articulating, expressing, and putting right in their fucking faces the U.S. popular opposition to their war against the Sandinista Revolution. But we never had a chance to become a lasting organization in terms of building a movement atop the accomplishments of the Sandinista Revolution.
DH: You mentioned an implicit, broader goal of revitalizing the Left in the U.S.
GJ: Especially revitalizing a Left that was, to the extent it existed, siloed into a variety of cults. I’m glad we didn’t have to deal with the Sparts or the RCP in DC. There could be an organization that did more, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not even everyone in the group wanted that. They wanted to be able to do something that contributed towards building a revolution in the U.S., and it wasn’t just going to the shooting range and learning how to handle a rifle.
DH: Is there anything you would have changed in terms of your activism? Knowing how the Sandinistas turned out, do you think your solidarity activism should have taken a different character?
GJ: No, I don’t think so, because, for better or worse, Nicaragua was the issue. Indeed there were many issues: in Central America, Guatemalan genocide, in El Salvador, death squads reigned. But Nicaragua was the call of the moment; it was the largest motivating factor because the U.S. was so involved in trying to destroy the Sandinista Revolution. It sounds reductive, but the fact that the U.S. was trying to destroy the Sandinista Revolution meant that the Sandinista Revolution had to be doing something right, even though I knew they were doing a lot wrong.
What should we have pivoted to after Nicaragua? I can’t really say; we were still doing a lot until 87.
DH: Why didn’t you attempt to form a new political party out of your activism?
GJ: That’s a regret — not having tried that.
DH: Did this seem too ambitious, too difficult?
GJ: There would have been too few people from the group to call themselves a party, though I’m sure the membership numbers for many parties in the U.S. today are comparable, e.g., the SWP probably has a couple of septuagenarians and one college student in their so-called branches. We could have done better than that. But no, we couldn’t have built an alternative. The SWP seems to have a Jonestown air about them, built around one guru who leads the group in a messianic way. This is a risk with a small group of people declaring themselves a political party.
DH: Sectarianism, in a word.
Turning to the present, solidarity and anti-imperialism have re-emerged on the Left as a potent issue given the Ukraine-Russia conflict, but also other things like China. Are there any lessons from your experience in the 80s for Leftists or socialists today?
GJ:, You can see a whole range of Left and populist people in the U.S., including some in the Republican Party, who have a Putin-sympathetic, anti-imperialist understanding that says, “Russia is justified in what it’s doing in Ukraine, and Ukraine is a fascist state that should be swept away.” What do they know about (1), Putin and the Russian Federation — Putin is one of the most rabid anti-communist we’ve seen, certainly in the 21st century — and (2), the reality of Ukraine, where fascists got about 2% in the last election? Instead, these people focus on how the Ukrainian army is pointing guns at their own people to force them to shoot, to fight the Russians. Hello? Every military that ever existed since the invention of handguns enlisted soldiers carrying rifles and the officers carrying pistols, because the pistols are for shooting the enlisted men if they don’t shoot the enemy or they try to desert! I’m sorry, but saying that the Ukrainian army is pointing guns at their own people to force them to fight the Russians is not a cogent political argument. It’s the same with saying that Ukrainians have tied people up naked in the town square and tortured them. I’m sorry, that’s what you do to collaborators because you don’t want anyone else to collaborate. Did we all condemn the ANC when they necklaced collaborators with the Apartheid machine? As if the Russians wouldn’t do that kind of shit? They’re doing that as the invading force! Please spare me the idiotic, elementary-school, anti-imperialist politics.
However, coming out in support of Western military armaments to Ukraine is a tough sell. The optics are bad no matter how you look at it. On the other hand, do we just say to Ukraine, “roll over and die”? It’s incredible the way that the nation responded, and it wasn’t because there were fascists in the militia that they successfully resisted and, to an extent, pushed back the Russian invasion. This is a popular national resistance. Of course it’s a bourgeois state. Here’s another one, “but they’ve outlawed strikes and outlawed unions!”
DH: And opposition parties.
GJ: They’re at war! Abraham Lincoln suspended civil liberties in the U.S. Roosevelt did too in WWII, and we weren’t even being invaded.
DH: Against the SWP.
GJ: Yeah, exactly, that’s terrible. No, they shouldn’t do that. The workers in Ukraine should organize a popular resistance; they should make the war of resistance against Russia into a revolutionary struggle in their own interests. Are they going to be able to do that? I don’t know, but whether they get Western weapons or not doesn’t decide it. Receiving Western weapons isn’t going to create a false consciousness in which they can trust Western imperialism as opposed to Russian imperialism. Do you really believe the CIA and George Soros engineered the popular Maidan Revolution? No; the CIA didn’t engineer it, but they took advantage of it. It was real; it was millions of people, and they ejected an utterly corrupt — not even pro-Putin, but fence-sitting — Viktor Yanukovych because the majority of Ukrainians wanted to become part of Europe, because Europe is cool and Russia sucks. That’s what the Ukrainians decided. Of course NATO’s got a dirty history: they funded fascists as part of a stay-behind guerrilla campaign against an expected Soviet overrun of Europe.
DH: Based on your experience in terms of solidarity, an experience that much of the Left lacks, what should Leftists in the U.S. do for Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese workers?
GJ: The International Socialist Alternative (ISA) is one of, if not the only, Left political formations — maybe the IMT has somebody — with a Russian section, an organization that publishes, holds demonstrations, and has had key organizers arrested — some now in exile. When I hear Leftist pundits in the U.S. talking about the need for solidarity with the Russian working class, I think, “we’re doing it; you’re doing nothing.”
One lesson from the solidarity movement has to be remaining critical of the people you’re in solidarity with. On that matter, Ukraine deserves to have self-determination, and therefore Ukraine should emerge victorious in ejecting the Russian army back to, at least, the February 24 border. But we have to recognize that there are as many dangers in that successful scenario as there are in the scenario where they fail and Russia secures the four provinces that it illegally annexed.
Regarding China, the work we did — I shouldn’t talk about ISA because I don’t represent it in any sense — mostly around Europe and the U.S., in supporting the Sitong Bridge Man and the White Paper Protests, was excellent. It was an overseas reverberation filtering back to China through the Great Firewall.
We worked on campuses, organizing discussions and panels about the issues of the coming revolution in China. We weren’t the only ones; there were many others, spontaneously organized by Chinese students overseas. We jumped on that activity because we saw it was important. Without it, I’m not sure how much coverage it would have gotten within China. But because it went overseas and returned, it’s widely known in China, and even Chinese observers are admitting, that this was a major factor in the sudden decision to abolish the zero-COVID policy, which had turned into an utter shitshow and has probably done more to discredit the CCP than anything since Tiananmen Square (1989). You’ve got to wonder, what will it take for the more politically aware Chinese masses? I mean, they sing “The Internationale” at their protests! At Tiananmen, they wanted real socialism, socialism with democracy. They didn’t want American-style big business to rule politics. I’ve heard big populist podcasters in the U.S. bad-mouthing Tiananmen and saying George Soros was behind it. How ignorant can you be?
DH: Could solidarity efforts succeed today where NICA was only successful in the short-term?
GJ: Since we were just talking about China and the potential for Chinese revolution, I can say that building a revolutionary movement in tandem with a solidarity movement could happen if there were a successful popular revolution in China. There could be a solidarity movement in the U.S. in support of a democratic revolution in China, though that revolution would be socialist and anti-imperialist in its orientation. Even if the U.S. decided that it didn’t like the new regime, a solidarity movement could arise.
The situation today is worse than it was in the 80s in terms of solidarity. For example, you’ve got ultra-nationalist, Right-wing, Republican anti-imperialists, who are opposed aiding Ukraine, all the way through to different Trotskyist, Maoist sects, the Squad, and the DSA, who support aid to Ukraine. That’s a mess. “Solidarity for Ukraine!” “No, they’re fascists!” It’s worse than the 80s.
DH: Your imagination for solidarity in the 80s was still considering revolution in the U.S., which is missing from today’s solidarity. What solidarity means today is, “there’s some people over there who are doing something good, and we have to help them.” Would you agree with that?
GJ: The dominant trend — and it’s sad because a lot of good people think this way — is to understand revolution at home as self-help and collectives. I would contribute. I would even spend a few hours at a co-op. But that’s not making a revolution; that’s welfare. It’s not the kind of welfare that’s evil — dependent creating — but it’s social welfare. Revolution is organizing.
So much of the Left now has got ridiculous, woke ideological blinders. If I said, “I don’t think we should go around punching people wearing MAGA hats, because if we don’t recruit a sizable number of MAGA-hat wearing, Trump Republicans to the revolution, we’re not going to have a revolution,” it would be alien to many on the Left today. One of the things Jimmy Dore says that he’s absolutely right about — he was a bricklayer and in different unions — is that trying to begin a union in the workplace by asking, “did you vote for Trump?,” is just insane. Those people should be drummed out, because that’s just destructive. I get the extreme pessimism that’s easy to fall into. I was in a union for ten years. I was in the janitor’s union at Princeton the year after I graduated, then I was at Amalgamated Transit. It’s hard, and I don’t know how it’s going to work, but you have to participate.
It’s not easy, but you have to be part of an organization; you can’t be a lone-wolf revolutionary. You have to think and speak out when you can. You have to be able to seize the moment, because there is such a thing as a revolutionary window; there are situations where the opportunity arises and then it’s gone: you’ve either taken it or you haven’t. There is no substitute to handling situations on the ground and speaking extemporaneously on the street or in a meeting for developing those instincts.
Derrick Varn is wrong to say that our task is now analysis because the Left is in such shambles. But it would be equally wrong to say that all we have to do is put in a little effort and things will turn around. Things will inevitably turn around. Opportunities will arise, but the way the U.S. looks now, all bets are off on who’s going to be more successful in exploiting them. It’s just as easily going to be the Right in the U.S. taking up the revolutionary potential, because some of those today who consider themselves revolutionary are going to go with the fascists. Historically that’s always happened. |P
 “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” commonly known as “Morning in America,” was a 1984 television commercial that was part of the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan.
 Sandinistas Speak: Speeches, Writings, and Interviews with Leaders of Nicaragua’s Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982).
 Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) (Sandinista National Liberation Front).
 Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988 (London: Resistance Books, 2012).
 Derived from the Spanish word contrarrevolución (counterrevolution), this refers to those opposed to the Sandinistas.
 Party for Socialism and Liberation.
 Communist Party USA.
 An American aircraft manufactured by McDonnell Douglas.
 Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party).
 Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
 African National Congress, a political party in South Africa.
 Also known as the Revolution of Dignity or the Ukrainian Revolution; it took place in Ukraine in February 2014 at the end of the Euromaidan protests.
 International Marxist Tendency.
 On October 13, 2022, in the prelude to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a man — later dubbed Bridge Man (after Tank Man) — protested Xi Jinping by hanging banners and burning tires on the Sitong Bridge in Beijing.
 A series of protests against COVID-19 lockdowns in China in November 2022.
 Chinese Communist Party.