Building Radical America
The 1960s magazine that kept alive the history of the US left and provided the intellectual material for its future.
- Interview by
- Salar Mohandesi
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, which originally appeared in Viewpoint Magazine, Salar Mohandesi discusses with Buhle the historical conjuncture that gave rise to the project, the journal’s aims, and the American radical tradition.
What was Radical America?
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, WI 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–1970s.
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 seventy, eighty, 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–1940s 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–1940s, or more likely were active in unions, fraternal and 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 antiracists, 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 percent 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, 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’s 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 shutdowns 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 SEIU 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, antiracist 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.