by Richard Mellor Afscme Local 444, retired
I have nothing but admiration for Norman Finkelstein. A particular aspect of this discussion that hit home with me outside of the Israel/Palestine question is the question of groups, cults and the inability, perhaps refusal would be a better term, to reach or direct their views at the public as it is.
As readers of this blog must be aware by now, we have the opinion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the internal life of the huge array of left groups, socialist, anarchist, communist etc. to which many of us have belonged. After all, there are thousands more people outside of these groups than within them who still consider themselves socialists.
Finkelstein's comments hit home with me and I'll give an example. I was in a socialist group but my day to day political life was in the workplace and the union, a blue collar union. If it was not in this organization of workers, it was in others, rental rights groups and the like. Our strategy was always too link workers' struggles no matter where they occurred. This protected me in my opinion, from being isolated from the real world.
Years ago, I took up the killing of a young black man by a transit cop. His father was a fire fighter. As was always the case, I took this issue in to my workplace and in to my local union and the wider labor movement. One thing about the group I was in was that it definitely oriented to the working class and had a large working class membership internationally. The young man's name was Jerrold Hall.
The murder was brought to my attention by another socialist in another group (they are rivals which is part of the problem). I brought the issue in to my union and the membership at the time were very supportive, after all the unarmed youth was shot in the back of the head as he was walking away from the cop.
A short time after, the bourgeois media runs a story about the young man. He was a bit of a bully, apparently hit is girlfriend here and there and on the night of the murder had stolen a Walkman off a kid on the train and slapped one around a bit, I would have to go dig up my files to recall it all but that's the gist of it.
The purpose of this story was to denigrate this young man of course, to sway public opinion; just another young black thug walking the streets preying on any easy mark. They do the same in labor disputes every worker knows that. I called the person who had asked me to get my union's help and it turned out these details that came out in the press were accurate and she knew about them.
I was angry to say the least and blasted her for not telling me. She immediately responded by questioning my loyalty basically, of siding with the cops, black youth, white cop, why did I need any more information than that?
I told her why. Although I belonged to a fairly small socialist organization, this group never took me out of the class struggle, never isolated me from my co-workers cult like, but helped me to sink deeper roots in the class, helped me strengthen my local, my co-workers and the working class as a whole by listening, learning and helping them to fight back. As Finkelstein explains above in different terms, it is, important to gauge the mood, the thinking of the public in order to intervene in a healthy way with one's ideas, after all, we have to defend them.
When my fellow union members read that article and wavered with regards to their putting their necks out there for this young guy, I had to have an answer, just as I did with every question that came up. But for the member of the small insignificant sect, and I think every left group has an aspect of cultism to it, it was simply a matter of convincing the other 10 members of the group who are all agreed on things anyway. But I had to convince the folks at the union hall with all their varying opinions and in the wake of a media effort to sway them in favor of the cop, that while the guy was no saint, we are right to oppose his murder by this cop. I had to convince workers, not by manipulating anyone. As a worker myself, I was confident that knowing all the facts, even the young man's weaknesses, they would take his side; and they did.
For years, when I would write a piece, especially if it was about politics, or some sort of theoretical question, I would constantly think about what the left would say about what I was writing. What would they attack me for? If I used this phrase, that formulation, I would try to avoid attacks from the left, mostly because it would mean having to take important time responding to people who really have no influence at all.
This was very harmful as I have always considered that I write for workers, in other words, it is important as Finkelstein says above, that we understand where the public is at. Worrying about what a group with 25 people in it might say, a group that announces themselves as the leadership of the working class never mind that no one has heard of them, was but a diversion. Those of on the left must ask ourselves how come the left never built a left current in the US working class? It's not all objective conditions.
So a lot of the criticism Finkelstein levels at the BDS movement I agree with. I do say that the group I was in was different to a certain degree, but like all left groups, they believe they and only they have the right methods and more important than building or helping to build a generalized movement is increasing the numbers of one's own organization. Building the group is paramount, the movement secondary. So they have no real effect and end up with nothing.
- AFSCME Local 444 negotiations assesment 1997
- Preparing for Revolution: A discussion document
- The Internal lives of Revolutionary Organizations
- Socialist Alternative members: Questions and Answers
- Sanders: Our Alternative
- The Nature of the New European Left
- Catastrophic Climate Change: Caused by Capitalism
- University of California workers and Unions
- An Invitation to Our Readers