This is chapter Sixteen of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. In its sixteenth chapter Leslie Zinn discusses media makeovers.
Lydia Luxemburg discusses ideas at the heart of RPS.
Lydia Luxemburg, born in 1948, you became political in the great upheavals of the 1960s. Life-long feminist, activist, organization builder, and media worker, you were also RPS’s first shadow President. I hope you won’t take it as ageist, but you have been a personal inspiration for me for a long time, not least due to the longevity of your focus and effectivity.
You are very kind. Thank you.
How did you first become radicalized?
I was in college in the 1960s, caught up in the politics of the times. I became anti war due to my country’s violence in Indochina. I became feminist due to sexism in society and within the left itself. I rejected that women were ornaments to be paraded or servants to do tasks men wished to avoid. I became revolutionary when my mind and heart linked in a commitment to win change.
Could you recount a personally moving or inspiring event from the past twenty years?
At Trump’s inauguration the huge outpouring of women and also many men around the U.S. and the world was a timely boost for what had been my then somewhat precarious personal morale. From then on, it was one inspiring campaign after another, though of course there were also some setbacks.
One particularly moving experience came during the community control of police campaigns when I spent some time talking with people who had been jailed for crimes they did not commit, and later exonerated and released. To meet people who had been imprisoned for years, and even decades, was incredibly moving. To hear of their travail upon being released after people they had known were long gone, and due to having no home, and to see their cheer and positivity despite all the pain in their past, gave me faith in human potential.
Considering all the people who accepted plea bargains to avoid worse injustice, and all the people jailed for victimless crimes, powerfully moved me.
But I also had a very different kind of experience, more personal, that had a big effect. I had decided to write a novel to get across the commitments I favored in a new way. I wrote a draft, and while I had written plenty of non fiction before, a novel was a first for me and I was unclear whether the draft had merit and quite sure I needed reactions to guide making it better.
I sent it to some friends and family members. I knew it was a lot to ask them to look at a whole book, but I asked anyway, making clear that I needed reactions to improve the book.
Five out of about twenty five people even acknowledged receiving the draft. Those five said they would get to it soon, but none did. The other twenty also didn’t read it or provide comment, and didn’t even acknowledge the request having occurred. Not one of the twenty five asked a single question, not even what it was like to try to write a novel, much less about its contents.
The book wasn’t technical. It told about matters of society and relayed experiences key to all our lives. Yet there was no curiosity much less inclination to help.
I thought about this and at first I was hurt. It wasn’t disturbing that any one person didn’t reply since there could be various reasons in any individual case. What hurt was the universality of it. I was sure that had any one of these people sent me something comparable, and asked my reaction in hopes of getting help to guide improvements, I would immediately acknowledge receiving the draft, have questions about it, and then try to provide some help, or report my incapacity to do so if I tried but failed.
When I thought about that, my sadness grew, but it also changed a bit. I realized this kind of silence was emblematic of contemporary life in the U.S., especially on the left. Everyone at that time thought it showed a degree of human solidarity, civility, and sympathy to say, “have a nice day,” and to otherwise appear civil and concerned. It didn’t matter if you meant it or not. It was quick. It was easy. You got civility points for it. More, if you didn’t do it, despite that doing it could easily have meant nothing, you were a brute. In striking contrast, to sincerely regard one another with interest about something substantive, to say caring and/or critical things and actually mean them, well, that might elicit hurt, anger, and even rebuff, and it took time. You might get negative points for your effort. So people started to avoid bothering, and before long not bothering became acceptable, then routine, then admirable.
Surface cordiality plus below the surface aloofness became the U.S. cultural norm particularly for the coordinator class – and the left. Superficial civility was familiar, understood, and accepted. Serious intent and effort, especially if it involved criticism, was unfamiliar, misunderstood, and rejected. To deem surface cordiality paternalistic was uncivil. To seek serious engagement was intrusive or selfish. Saying “hi, have a nice day,” and moving on, was expected and reflexively welcomed. Wanting, or offering, more substantial interest and concern struck people as intrusive, strange, or even abusive.
We had as a people become so focused on discussing popular culture, sports, and gossip as safe ways to engage, and so removed from our abilities to evaluate and think about anything social, and from our abilities to apply ourselves beyond reflex reactions, that we tended to see acts like my timidly sending around a book draft to friends or even family for advice rather like we might see a stranger aggressively demanding we help him with something totally foreign, totally beyond us, totally lacking interest for us. An intrusion, not a sign of respect.
Ask about a ballgame, a TV show, or a new restaurant and people eagerly conversed. No risk. Auto pilot. Ask about some unquestionably horrible event, some unquestionably grotesque political enemy where there is nearly universal instant agreement, and again, people were quick to offer spontaneous opinions, which, however, in the circles where they were offered, were commonplace and accepted even before being uttered. Auto pilot.
Try to dig in and think through the cause and effect of events and views where disagreements arose. That shocked. That went too far. Offer unusual much less challenging views. That was unacceptable.
In that context, if you asked for a reaction to a new socially aimed novel or for anything that would require stretching beyond what was common and safe, and where a comment might even be thought less than ideal, the energy for engagement dissipated. You couldn’t tweet a reaction to a draft of a book, so the reaction was never produced, nor even a simple acknowledgement.
The contrast to the spirited give and take of ideas and judgements I knew from my youth was glaring. Whatever the real meaning of my experience was, it impacted how I related to RPS thereafter, and affected what acts I thought could and could not reach people.
When RPS was emerging, you were around seventy and had a lifetime’s worth of activism. Did it take you by surprise? Did you feel vindicated?
I felt, what took so long? Some of us knew what was needed 50 years ago. Why didn’t we do a better job bringing it into being?
So RPS happening didn’t surprise me but I certainly didn’t feel vindicated. I was ecstatic it was happening – but I was tormented by how many lives had been lost or made less than they should have been by the fact that my generation hadn’t done better in prior decades.
Even before the first convention, what ideas did you think distinguished RPS from predecessor projects that hadn’t taken off?
What ideas attracted you at the beginning that served as a foundation for what has emerged since?
Before I was attracted to RPS I saw the world refracted through a lens that highlighted gender so heavily that much else went largely or even completely unnoticed. I didn’t explicitly think everything else was unimportant, but my attention to gender so monopolized my perceptions that I often failed to see much else.
I would go into a workplace and see how people related, what they were doing, and what they got for it – but all as men and women. Similarly when viewing church, education, sports, TV, and families, I saw men and women’s different circumstances, rewards, and costs. I saw their connections and disconnections. I saw women filling roles that included mother-like and wife-like attributes and men filling roles that included father-like and husband-like attributes. I tended to miss, or at least not dwell on, the importance of other group differences.
It’s odd, because I had been closer to the current RPS view back in the late sixties and early seventies, before I temporarily lost my multi-issue balance. My approach prior to RPS – but post my more balanced Sixties New Left involvements – was a bit like looking at the world through a filter that makes certain colors or shapes very intense while causing other colors or shapes to fade. I saw male and female in high definition. I saw the rest blurred.
Add to that my first hand knowledge about the situation of women, and I was highly attuned to gender and sexuality, which was good, but barely attuned to class, race, and other dynamics, which was not good. I was particularly blind to interrelations and especially to what pushed kinship so much as to alter it – as compared to how kinship pushed other facets of society, which I did see. I saw how sexist relations permeated workplaces and affected their definition, but I did not see how class relations permeated and affected family relations.
So I was initially standoffish about RPS adopting a holistic approach. At first it felt like purist badgering, even though I knew that when I was in my early twenties I had had a very similar inclination. But after awhile RPS re-convinced me we should not assume any hierarchy of importance among the different defining parts of life and society.
But why were you initially standoffish? Why didn’t the insight grab you, without you resisting?
At first, I worried that if we stopped elevating kinship, sexist men would peripheralize it. I so feared that that it took considerable time for me to even hear the RPS message, much less grapple with and finally agree with it. Another aspect of it had to do with how I pursued feminism – or how other people pursued anti racism, or anti capitalism. I realized we often defensively protested ills rather than positively pursuing virtues. We had defensive mindsets and constantly called out and punished whatever we sought to ward off. Our priority was seeing ills and beating them back. We didn’t advocate new positive outcomes. With our defensive mindset, we saw mainly how choices could yield men dominating and feminism yielding. We were reflexively negative.
I finally realized that my fear that kinship would be minimized was exactly what maximizing kinship did to other parts of social life – it minimized them. There had to be a better way than to pick one focus and defend it to the exclusion of attending to other focuses.
Once I realized that RPS was adding more focuses, not subtracting mine, I could see that just as pressures from gender could mold other parts of society, so could pressures arising from economy, polity, or culture mold gender. What was remarkable was as soon as I recognized such mutual interrelations, I saw them all over. RPS revealed how dynamics in one part of life could alter the features and even the defining logic of other parts. It revealed how fixating on one part could interfere with seeing interrelations. It saw class in families and schools, gender in workplaces and churches, race in government and health. It showed how economics affected politics, how race and nationality affected economics, and how gender and kinship affected culture, economy, and politics but were also affected by them. It provided a basis for a project that could unify key constituencies without submerging the concerns of any of them. It provided concepts able to overcome our biases and rejected concepts that would cause us to pursue only our most personal inclinations.
Can you give me an example or two of this?
The RPS view got me to understand that you couldn’t change gender relations by focussing only on the home and upbringing. The basic structures defining sexism were certainly rooted in the home, but not only there. Sexist kinship roles have requirements for men and women. These requirements imprint people with beliefs, values, and habits producing men and women with gender-specific expectations and inclinations. These attributes didn’t disappear if a man or a woman exited a living unit and entered a workplace, ballpark, or mall. Other institutions then abided or violated the family-based expectations and inclinations.
If they violated, it would cause conflict and require resolution. If they abided, there would be stability. Sometimes other institutions would begin to incorporate the same sexist logic as households. They would become not just compatible with persistent sexism, but sources of its reproduction. Feminist movements might win important changes in households, but if they ignored the sexism that had become entrenched elsewhere, emanations from those other places could push back on changed households, causing them to revert. And the same pattern holds for class and race, too.
Class and race permeate society, so sources of class and race hierarchy persist in laws and families not just in workplace and cultural venues. The incredible truth was that winning for one focus in its prime area wouldn’t even win just for it, because the win would be temporary, in time wiped out by unaltered relations in other parts of society. Once one had that perspective, it was easy to see the need for broader movement connections. Before having that perspective, it was not so easy.
Can you give a less abstract example, perhaps from near the start of RPS?
The Sanders campaign, and then the rise of Donald Trump, had very profound effects. Many white men and women supported Trump, but why?
Trump was a rich, violent, egomaniacal, racist, sexist, abomination. Still, he had a lot of support that should have been for Sanders and that we would have to win over to any successful project for a truly new society.
Women and Blacks had for a long time fought hard for change precisely as women and as Blacks. Watching that and sometimes encountering it, white working class men began to assess their own situations, which were severely deteriorating due to economic losses and political marginalization.
Okay, so what is a white guy to think? If society is a battle between genders and races, and that is what the white guy thinks is being said – and if it is a personal fight at that, undertaken to a considerable degree individual by individual – then white men’s worsening condition, he might deduce, must have to do with losing that battle. Along comes a thug candidate who seems ready to fight against the trend. Many identified with him.
RPS tried to understand but not blame white men. Sure, there was racism, sexism, fear, and ignorance. But what were the roots of it? RPS noticed, but didn’t focus on, the Democratic Party having moved toward ignoring workers in favor of attending to professionals and addressing people only as black, female, etc. That was important. But the RPS approach was mainly about finding what we ourselves can do to win change, not about decrying what others were doing that we didn’t like.
RPS asked if workers didn’t see their worsening situation as a function of corporate policies and structures of which Trump was a prime emissary, where was the cause of that that we could address rather than just moan about?
Answer: it was in ourselves. We hadn’t paid attention to why we weren’t being heard, why our words hadn’t resonated with working people. The upshot was we didn’t respect, understand, relate to, hear, and learn from their concerns, so they in turn ignored, or hated, us. We didn’t address the divide between workers and the professionals who RPS took to calling the coordinator class.
The second awareness to emerge was we had too often fought to improve conditions in ways that polarized others into becoming resistant to and even hostile to change. We had to learn to fight racism, sexism, and homophobia, but simultaneously support working people, and yes white male working people, not as some throwaway line, but, because doing so was right as well as a prerequisite for winning a new world.
And this was all hard for you to accept? I mean, just twenty five years later, it is second nature.
When these notions surfaced and spread, or really, for me, resurfaced and re-spread, we all had to overcome our long-held, narrow prioritizations. Some had prioritized economy and class. Some, like myself, had prioritized kinship and gender. Some had prioritized culture and race, politics and power, war and international relations, or ecology and sustainability. At the extreme, people self-consciously prioritized one area, or sometimes two or three but still a subset, above all others. Less drastically, and more often, people didn’t explicitly do that, but in difficult situations would slip into that bias by way of the narrowing effect of the concepts we had forefront in our minds. I was in that camp.
To hear someone say that part of the fault for white men moving to the right was radicals doing a crappy job of communicating about coordinator class /working class relations, felt like an assault to activists who had been working hard to confront capitalism. Likewise, to hear that part of the fault rested with how blacks and women pursued their agendas, felt to many, including me, like the assertion itself was racist and sexist. So it was hard to navigate the tensions.
The more I thought about all this, the more I saw that there were two problems with over-prioritizing one focus. The first was that elevating a particular side of life to conceptual priority misled our efforts to understand society as a whole. Prioritizing a particular area under attended other areas and in so doing, missed much about critically important and mutually intersecting social relations and possibilities.
The second reason was that elevating one focus above the others pitted constituencies that needed to work together against one another. Each narrowly focused approach would pursue their own agenda largely ignoring implications for other approaches. They wouldn’t say, we have to address race, class, or gender only in ways consistent with and even advancing comparably addressing the other focuses. Or they might say it, but then not act on it.
It was like we had a slippery, heavy object to move and had various teams ready to work on doing so. Each team had a part of the whole that they knew best, most wanted to move, and could tug better than they could tug any other part. Each team grabbed their part without noticing what the other teams were doing. Instead of all the teams moving all the parts in concert, with the whole object going where they intended, the teams pulled and pushed at odds with each other, so the whole object just moved a bit here and a bit there, but never far in any direction.
RPS said, hold on, each part is critical, but unless we address all of them in mutually enhancing ways, none of the parts are going to alter much. We’ll get opposition and competition instead of mutual aid.
Was this basically a debate between advocates of “identity politics” and advocates of “class politics”?
Yes and no. RPS thought outside both boxes in ways that allowed each of the prior two approaches to participate without any rancor toward the other. The class focus side had its roots in pre sixties anti-capitalism that caused adherents to think class was so fundamental that analyzing events, forming agendas, and having goals had to prioritize class and economy even at the expense of all else. The class-focus idea was that the tools for being attuned to class had to be constantly in hand and utilized, but the rest, not so much. Of course there were all kinds of nuances.
The identity politics side had its roots in sixties feminist and anti racist organizing that rebelled against the class approach. It chose a new priority focus – either kinship or culture/race or sometimes both – and treated it preferentially. As the years passed, eventually race, gender, and sexuality folks began to unite, creating what some called identity politics.
An additional wrinkle was that the class-first folks always prioritized institutional dynamics. Their discussions of class and economy only rarely ventured into the day-to-day personal injuries of class. The identity politics folks instead most often prioritized the attitudes, behavior patterns, and personalities of both advocates and opponents of the focused oppressions. In some ways the debate was a complex tug of war. First one side would make headway, then the other. Every so often each side would alter a bit, as well.
The class side argued that economy is fundamental and class is paramount because economy unavoidably constrains and impacts all else. But the advocates of race, sex, gender – or all of them – made precisely the same case, with essentially the same logic. Race, sex, and or gender unavoidably constrain and impact all else. On this axis of discussion, there really was no logical reason for conflict. You could hold both stances simultaneously, and there was no reason in the underlying logic to do otherwise. You didn’t have to pursue either/or. And the same was true for paying priority attention to institutions and to mindsets or behaviors. Why not do it all?
Seeing that, I never thought the objective issues of the debate had much to do with why people lined up as they did from the late 1960s on. I instead thought the operational side pushed contending stances into opposition. The class folks worried that giving priority attention to race, gender, or sexuality, much less to all three, would diminish attention to class at great cost. The race, gender, and sexuality folks worried that giving priority attention to class would diminish attention to their areas at great cost.
For unity, all that was required was for both sides to see that both claims were correct. We needed to address each focus in ways that didn’t inhibit giving attention to the rest. So RPS injected a reiteration of views that had existed a long time, and been repeatedly but unsuccessfully proposed earlier. RPS said, the class folks are right about institutions being critical, and are right that class is critical. Identity folks are right mindsets and behavior patterns are critical and that gender, race, and sexuality, are critical. More, there is no contradiction between these many views as soon as each side acknowledges not only that its own views have merit, but so do the seemingly contrary but in fact completely compatible views of the other side.
RPS said, we should come at society giving forefront priority attention to institutions and to mentalities/behaviors and to race, gender, sexuality, and class and we should not try to prioritize among these focuses.
You said two RPS conceptual innovations played a major role in attracting you. What was the second?
It was something so simple that nowadays it may seem silly to mention. To be in the economy, you have to work someplace, and buy and sell. To be in a religion, you had to relate to its church or other structures. To be in a family, you had to be a mother, father, brother, or sister. More generally, to benefit from some institution, you had to comply with whatever roles you had in that institution. Your roles determined your acceptable actions.
If you were a nurse, a congressperson, a priest, a bricklayer, a short order cook, a teacher, or whatever else, to gain benefits you had to behave consistent with your role and with other roles in the institutions you navigated. There was a vernacular slogan for it, “You had to play the game.”
We do what our situations require and we become what we do. It was true in a corporation, family, shopping center, church, prison, government, military, or criminal cartel. And the observation had three major implications.
First, to evaluate a workplace, family, government or whatever, we had to reveal the roles people had to relate to in that institution if they were going to get what they wanted. Having determined the roles, we had to reveal what the roles demanded of people and thus who the roles caused people to become.
Second, to move from understanding an institution to changing it, we had to decide we wanted from the institution. What roles blocked that goal? What new roles could accomplish that goal?
Third, given our circumstances and resources, we had to determine what we could fight for that would move us in our desired direction. What roles characterized our movements? Did they further or impede our aims? What changes in our ways of organizing could move us nearer our goals and also make winning further gains likely?
Can you give an example of what kind of experience made you elevate the insight about roles and institutions to a centrally guiding norm?
Early in my time with RPS I visited a worker-run glass factory in the Midwest. Workers I met there were surprisingly despondent about their new circumstances deteriorating back toward what they had known before they took over. “All the old crap is coming back,” they reported, and they felt crushed by that fact because to them it said there was no alternative to the capitalist drudgery and poverty they thought they were escaping.
They had set up a workers’ assembly to have democratic decision making by everyone involved. They had equalized their wages. They had created a climate of support. A year had passed since they instituted their changes yet they said in recent weeks their decision-making assembly was attended by only a few. Wage differences were returning. Work was reverting to being a debilitating, alienating chore. The workers got steadily more upset the more they described their deteriorating plight, and, most disturbingly, they attributed their worsening situation to their bosses and managers having been correct back when they had told the workers who first took over the plant, “You are naive. The inequalities and hierarchies you rebel against are part and parcel of being human. They are who we are. Your joy at taking over this workplace will evaporate into failure.” And now the workers felt crushed that their predicted failure was coming true.
I had become, not long before, an RPS organizer. I knew that in taking over their workplace some people were left doing overwhelmingly rote, repetitive, and disempowering tasks while other people did mostly empowering tasks.
The workers throughout the plant had all grown up in working class homes and neighborhoods. They had little formal education. They were not elitist and they were leftist, especially at the moment of taking over. But upon occupying their factory, most of them wound up with assembly work while a few wound up with daily decision making and other empowering responsibilities.
For them that was just how things were. It was how to get work done. I pointed out that the folks with empowering tasks were, as time passed, seeing themselves as more worthy and dominating. The folks doing disempowering work were being dominated, and, as time passed, becoming more resigned to it.
We talked more, but the point of the experience that bears on your question was that it was a very graphic instance of a very particular role’s implications for people’s daily options overruling people’s good intentions. The way the workers divided up work affected dynamics way beyond just getting the work done. It produced glass but also changed employees. It resurrected the old crap.
The analysis wasn’t academic. We didn’t need a whole new vocabulary and years of study to see the situation. It was simple and, oddly, for some on the left this was a kind of drawback. Some leftists mainly liked to look smart by their long sentences and big words. To speak plainly and advocate simple (but powerful) insights, upset those “scholars.” To them, being clear indicated irrelevance. It may sound absurd, or perverse, but it isn’t if you realize this was just another part of coordinator class habits and practices distorting left behavior.
If your status, income, and power spring from having a monopoly on empowering circumstances, then defending your status, income, and power depends on making sure your information and skills remain inaccessible to people outside your class. But regardless of academia minimizing attention to coordinator class habits, our simple ideas were not only accessible, they were intensely practical. If you don’t pay close attention to choices about institutions and their roles, some seemingly innocuous choice, or a choice that seemed to you inevitable and that you took for granted, could subvert your best intentions.
Retaining the old division of labor was an example. The experience of the workers taking over firms didn’t just show that institutions and their roles matter, it showed that they mattered so much that we had to focus on which features were okay, on which were not okay, and on what new features would be better.