Louis Proyect: I Have Always Identified with People Trying to Change Things
Louis Proyect, who died this week, spent the 1980s organizing international delegations of technical workers to support the Nicaraguan revolution. In this previously unpublished interview, he reflects on Central American solidarity efforts and a life lived on the Left.
- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
Louis Proyect, a lifelong socialist and influential online commentator known for his acerbic polemics, died this week at the age of seventy-six.
Proyect joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York City in 1967. He left the organization a decade later, rejecting what he saw as its sectarianism. During the 1980s, he found a new political home in the Central America solidarity movement, eventually becoming a key leader of the organization Technical Aid for Nicaragua, or TecNica.
TecNica’s mission was to organize delegations of skilled workers — especially computer programmers — who would travel from the United States to Nicaragua to provide technical assistance to the revolutionary state.
In addition to being a committed socialist, Proyect was also an accomplished computer programmer, having begun working in the field in 1968, during the early days of mainframe computing. He soon assumed a leadership position in TecNica and in other solidarity movement organizations, recruiting hundreds of skilled workers to the project and even establishing connections with revolutionary movements beyond Nicaragua — including in Cuba, South Africa, and Namibia.
Proyect left the solidarity movement in 1991 and became a pioneer in internet self-publishing, establishing an influential mailing list and moderated forum (MarxMail) which attracted an audience of thousands of Marxists all over the world.
As a writer, Proyect earned a reputation as being both caustic and prolific — a combination that sometimes alienated him from others on the Left. He was reflexively skeptical of writers who, he felt, indulged the frivolous or self-aggrandizing conventions of the liberal left, and was insistent in his calls for a coherent and pragmatic revolutionary strategy in the twenty-first century.
I contacted Louis in September 2019, when I was working on a PhD dissertation about international solidarity and the Nicaraguan revolution. Four years earlier, he had published an incredulous polemic responding to an article of mine in Jacobin (“What the fuck is [Walters] talking about?” he wrote), and so I was surprised when he responded immediately and graciously volunteered to talk.
I arranged to meet Louis in Washington Square Park a few weeks later. We sat on a bench for almost an hour, discussing TecNica, international solidarity, and Louis’s life on the Left. When he rose to leave, he handed me a folder containing hundreds of pages of old solidarity movement newsletters. “I think these will be very helpful for your research,” he told me. (He was right.)
Below is a transcript of our conversation together.
How did you become involved with TecNica?
In 1981 or so, I connected with a guy named Peter Camejo. He had been a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United States. But while on a delegation to Nicaragua he came to the conclusion that the SWP was a sectarian cult.
I also remember reading an article by Leslie Gelb on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He said the United States was on a collision course with Central American guerrillas, that it could be another Vietnam. And then I would read the Militant [a newsweekly published by the SWP], and there would be nothing about Central America except empty bombast about how countries had to follow the Cuban model.
I joined CISPES [Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador], which was a pretty vibrant organization at the time. I was active there for about four or five years. Then, in 1986, the Guardian (not the British newspaper, but the old radical weekly in the United States) announced that they were organizing a tour to see the Nicaraguan election. I went down there with them, and what I saw was incredible.
The major lesson I learned was that Sandinista supporters came from many different directions politically. It was nothing like the SWP: it was a mass revolutionary movement. This confirmed to me what Peter [Camejo] had said. He was trying to build a current in the United States that could adopt the lessons of the Central American revolutions — by putting aside the hammer and sickle, for example, and using the language and the iconography of the United States.
While in Nicaragua, I was riding on a bus, going to different farming cooperatives, seeing the various changes that had taken place there. And a high-school kid, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old, approached me and handed me a leaflet. It said, “Technical Aid to Nicaragua” or “Computer Programmers Needed in Nicaragua,” something like that. I looked at it and thought, Wow.
At the time I was working as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. I had been working on mainframes since 1968. So I started talking to this kid, who told me when I got back to New York I should contact the offices of a group called TecNica in Berkeley.
What was TecNica like back then?
When I first called them up, the guy who answered was Michael Urmann, the founder of the organization. He was an economist. He went to Nicaragua in 1983 or 1984, and he recognized that there had been a huge exodus of people with technical skills from the country.
When he got back to the United States, he started building a movement to recruit Americans that could help Nicaraguans make use of technology — including technologies they already had from the [prerevolutionary] Somoza era, as well as new developments like microcomputers.
I returned to Nicaragua as part of TecNica less than a year after I got back to New York. I even resigned from my position at Memorial Sloan Kettering with the intention of working in Nicaragua. When I got there, I gave classes in structured systems design to a group of people working in their Federal Reserve [Banco Nacional de Nicaragua], where they had the largest mainframe in the country. And then I went to the Ministry of Construction, where they wanted me to work full-time.
But I discussed it with Michael, and he told me I’d be of greater use if I went back to New York and focused on recruiting other people. So I did that instead, because I had experience as an organizer from my time in the SWP.
How did you recruit people to make the trip to Nicaragua?
I put ads in the Nation magazine and organized meetings at a loft on Mercer Street in Manhattan. Sometimes as many as eighty people would show up. I had a slideshow I would do; I’d give a pitch, and usually five or six people from the meeting would decide to go.
At one point I got so psyched about the project that I went to an IBM PC-users group in a big auditorium, maybe at New York University. There were like three hundred people in the crowd, and after the speaker gave his remarks he opened up the floor for Q&A. Usually at that point people would ask questions like, “What kind of modem would work best with an IBM AT whatever-the-fuck.” But I raised my hand, stood up, and said, “I just got back from Nicaragua, and there’s a tremendous development taking place there. Computers for the first time ever are being used to promote health and education.”
People started laughing at me. But the guy chairing the meeting called me down to the front and I continued speaking. I said, “This is your chance to use your skills to help change the world for the better.” And at least two or three people from that meeting ended up going down to Nicaragua.
By 1990 or so, we ended up sending about eight hundred people to Nicaragua (including the physicist Alan Sokal, who was a DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] member). For a while, delegations of twelve to fifteen people went every month. And every time a delegation would go down, they would bring about five or six personal computers. For a country that was desperately trying not to waste any money or time or human resources, having a PC, even just to do things like run payroll, made a significant difference.
We started off just organizing programmers, but we quickly diversified to include engineers and machinists of different kinds. This developed into our skilled trades subproject, which involved welders, heavy-duty mechanics, people like that. We raised money to buy parts that were desperately needed in Nicaraguan factories. Then we would send skilled delegations down to train the Nicaraguan workers on how to use the equipment, how to install it, how to repair it themselves.
Let me tell you something: We had every political tendency on the Left going down to Nicaragua in those delegations. They never once fought each other. There was a real “roll up your sleeves and get things done” kind of attitude. We had Workers World, Socialist Workers Party, Communist Party, Maoists, DSA, everybody. They all understood that what was happening in Nicaragua was bigger than their own narrow organizational goals.
That’s a pretty unique experience on the Left. How did TecNica fit into the broader Central America solidarity movement in the United States?
TecNica provided a way for people who wanted to provide technical support to the Nicaraguan revolution to do that. But then those volunteers would come back to the United States and begin talking to other people about Nicaragua. So recruitment was only part of my work.
I also worked to make returned TecNICA volunteers part of that broader solidarity movement. I was on the TecNica executive committee, and I was a member of the New York–Nicaragua Solidarity Network steering committee. We would have weekly meetings and plan out joint events and tablings and so forth.
We worked closely with the Nicaragua Medical Aid Committee (NicMAC), which was a coalition of doctors and nurses. We made connections with construction brigades and sister-city projects. We even organized dances to raise money.
There was a lot of collaboration. For example, Ben Linder didn’t go to Nicaragua through TecNICA; he went down on his own. But we raised money to send him the things he needed to complete the small-scale dam, or weir, he was building. And after he was killed, a small group of TecNica volunteers went out to finish the rural electrification project he started there [in El Cuá, a small town on the Nicaragua-Honduras border].
To be honest, the Central America solidarity movement was the last real radical movement in the United States, as far as I can tell. Actually, I take that back: we’re seeing a new wave of movements now, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. But in the 1980s, before these newer movements, the solidarity movement stood alone.
Tell me about TecNica’s work outside of Nicaragua.
At a certain point, Michael Urmann and I started meeting with some people at the Cuban embassy to discuss starting a project for Cuba.
Our contact at the embassy was a member of the Cuban intelligence agency who was living out on Long Island. He would call me in the morning to say [imitating Cuban accent], “Luis, meet me. Fifty-sixth street and second avenue. Two o’clock.” He would get in his car and drive away from New York City, then take a sharp turn to come back.
Somehow the FBI found out that we were meeting with him. It all happened in a few days. They [FBI agents] started going to places like Bell Labs, really top-of-the-line companies [that employed computer programmers]. They would go into the personnel office and say, “Are you aware your employees may be working with an espionage network?” They accused TecNica of transferring “high technologies” to the Soviet Union through Cuba.
It became a huge story. Nightline with Ted Koppel even ran a whole thirty-minute episode about the allegations — but the focus of the story was a TecNica volunteer who was just going around repairing electrical pylons that supplied electricity to Managua. The media coverage was such a repudiation of the FBI that they ultimately just dropped their case against us.
Around this time, we also started working in Africa. In the late 1980s I went on a needs assessment trip to the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, where I met with Thabo Mbeki and his wife, Zanele Dlamini Mbeki. It just so happened that she was working on Oliver Tambo’s speech for a major ANC conference at the time. And she couldn’t save it! So I bailed her out and I showed her how to save the file [laughs].
After Nelson Mandela got out of prison [in 1990], we had people working in South Africa, in Angola, in Zimbabwe. We sent somebody over to Namibia to train SWAPO [South West Africa People’s Organisation] how to use desktop publishing to run their propaganda campaigns.
Why did TecNica’s work wind down?
After [anti-Sandinista president] Violeta Chamorro was elected [in 1990], it became a lot harder to raise money. During the 1980s, TecNica had a donor base that included some wealthy people. But after 1990, because Nicaragua sort of disappeared as a galvanizing force, the money dried up.
The only project that continued was the skilled trades subproject, because the people working on it had been around the Communist Party and knew how to get things done. They continued to stay in touch with blue collar workers in Nicaragua, helping them out. But other than that, it just dissipated. It all finally dissipated.
How did your experience with TecNica affect the way you think about socialist politics and the international left?
When you’ve seen a place like Nicaragua it’s not hard to understand why these countries are so vulnerable. We’re talking about a country that’s the size of Brooklyn with a GDP that’s equal to what Americans spend on blue jeans each year! This is one of the reasons I really hate people like Reagan and Trump.
I went to work at Columbia University after I left TecNica in 1991. I retired about four or five years ago. What I do now, mostly, is write about the need to unite the Left. I’m trying to share some of the strategic orientation I learned from Camejo, who learned it from the Sandinistas, who learned it from the Cuban revolutionaries, from Mariátegui, and from the Latin American left.
In Latin America, the Left has had to deal with real questions of survival and revolutionary strategy. When you have a class struggle that’s so sharply posed, you can’t think in terms of bullshit sectarian schemas. Because you have people who are being killed! In Nicaragua, under Somoza, they were throwing people out of helicopters.
When I left the SWP, I enrolled in a writers’ workshop at NYU and told myself I was putting politics behind me. Fuck that shit, I thought. But then I would open up the Times in the morning and read about El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the pull was just too strong.
I find I always identify with the people who are at the bottom trying to change things. It’s quixotic.