Andrej Grubacic: You have recently written, or, as you say, channeled, an Oral History of the Future. The characters in the book RPS/2044 describe their personal experiences of successfully fighting for another world in a future U.S. time-shifted 28 years from ours. Why opt for that approach?
Albert: One part of seeking a vastly better future is certainly understanding current ills, and I think we activists are pretty good at that. We produce countless articles, books, talks, and events that convincingly reveal the structural causes and effects of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, capitalism, war, and nature’s violation. We understand current conditions and I even think not just activists, but virtually everyone in society, at some level knows that everything is broken, and that a great many even know why.
But a second part of successfully fighting for a vastly better future is having compelling shared clarity about what would make the future better and about how to win it. Without compelling shared vision and strategy, our articles, books, talks, and events rejecting the present, however insightfully, more often generate cynical despair than positive activism. Nonetheless, few of our works address what we want and how we might get it beyond the very near term much less all the way to a new society, and those that do, including my own, have led to precious little widely-shared vision and strategy.
So while an oral history of the future is certainly miles from my usual writing, I thought it might give human texture to discussions that are often too dry and disconnected from daily events to overcome reader resistance.
Are your interviewees from a future alt U.S. saying their past 28 years are, or should be, or could be, our next 28 years?
No, the diverse organizers, workers, doctor, nurse, priest, actress, athlete, candidates, and so on relate their experiences in a world that was initially quite like ours is now, but also quite separate from ours. They make very clear that what we do in our world is for us to decide and that of course our future will differ in details, duration, and perhaps also in various intentions and methods, from their past. They offer their memories to reveal possibilities and provide insights we might usefully refine and adapt. But, at the same time, while they anticipate major differences, they also hope we will reach as good or better outcomes than those they have enjoyed.
Some people find it arrogant, authoritarian, or just plain ignorant to discuss institutional aims beyond the very near future, much less to suggest possible paths to reach such aims. And they are right that people proposing long-term vision and strategy sometimes proclaim, dictate, and/or overstep the remotely knowable. But despite such pitfalls, we nonetheless have to broadly determine what we want and how to get it. Without that, we cannot overcome cynicism. We cannot orient future choices so they lead where we want to wind up. We cannot plant the seeds of the future in the present if we lack broad agreement about core features of the future and about key steps toward reaching it.
Can you tell us where in your own experiences some of the key thoughts in the bookRPS/2044 first emerged for you? I know that you can only be very cursory in an interview, but still…perhaps first, the multi-focus aspect?
That goes way back to being radicalized in the sixties. It was a lesson many gained from the women’s and civil rights movements of those times. Each of those movements sometimes became insular, celebrating its focus but ignoring others. But each also had elements that realized that successful change depended on more than the social relations they personally most directly felt. Their teaching led me and others to reject the idea that everything must be measured and undertaken only or even firstly in light of economic class implications or any other singular focus, for that matter. It taught me and others that class dynamics were certainly critical but so too were race, gender, and power dynamics – and that each was not only profoundly oppressive in its own right, but also so inextricably entwined with the rest that only prioritizing them all, not putting any one above the rest, made sense. Mutual aid had to embrace all those focuses. From that early realization emerged the kinds of insight the interviewees relate and the organizations they developed and described, though also the views they challenged.
What about the new approach to class that characterizes RPS history?
For me that was pre-birthed, I guess you might say, by very early doubts about Marxism and Leninism, but it was then actually birthed and initially nourished by an essay from Barbara and John Ehrenreich about what they called the professional managerial class, which Robin Hahnel and I took to calling the coordinator class.
The Ehrenreichs’ essay pointed us toward understanding empowering work and its implications for people’s views and options. We saw that not only property relations, but also the division of labor – and in particular the monopolization of empowering work by about 20% of the workforce – could divide people into contending classes.
From there, it was a short step to seeing that an anti-capitalist revolution could usher in not only classlessness but, in a less desirable scenario, coordinator class rule above workers. Then it was an even shorter step to seeing that exactly that had happened in what had been until then called socialism in the Soviet Union and other cases.
Those views about the past and present in turn resulted in insights about what new economic relations beyond eliminating private ownership were necessary to attain classlessness, and likewise in awareness of the ways that coordinator agendas play out to distort activist projects and other strategic insights. All that comes and quite a bit more comes into play in the oral history interviews precisely because their revolution was attuned to ushering in full classlessness.
And the importance given to vision and strategy?
This too arose for me quite early, but I have felt it ever more powerfully with each passing year. When Margaret Thatcher proclaimed, gleeful about it, “there is no alternative,” she was reporting what had long lurked beneath left failure, not inventing it.
Most people, even among activists, actually believed, at some deep level, that nothing truly better than what they suffer is viable and worthy. Our relative lack of attention to coherently answering the question what do you want – whether we are talking about economics, politics, culture, or kinship – makes sense only if folks think there is nothing compelling to say. It makes no sense if people think there really is something compelling to say. Or so it seemed, and still seems, to me.
If at some deep level people think nothing significantly better is possible, then there is little point in their fighting for fundamental change. If a better world doesn’t exist, fighting for it is a fool’s errand. Believing there is no alternative makes it more sensible to hunker down and manage as best you can with the cards necessity has dealt. That may sensibly include fighting for short run benefits – but not for long run non existent change. It may sensibly include rhetorically taking the side of the oppressed, to be able to feel good about oneself, but not steadfastly trying to win a new world. The widespread belief there is no alternative is, I think, arguably the strongest and most effective lynchpin of continued oppression.
The oral history addresses many strategic controversies RPS had to deal with, so, for example, where did your own views about violence come from?
That goes back, for me, again to the early times of my radicalization. I was very very angry, and very very militant. My inclinations were to fight at every turn, by whatever means necessary. My not joining Weatherman was a close call, and I not only partook of riots, I organized some. But before too long, despite my anger and initial inclination, as I started to see things systemically and believe in a systemic alternative, I realized the point is to win – not simply to fight. I came to realize you don’t seek the turf that is most suitable to your opponent and that guarantees your defeat, albeit in a blaze of courageous glory, head held high standing proud because you didn’t retreat, but nonetheless, head banged off.
There were many reasons at play. I realized winning requires massive support but violent confrontation diminishes support. Winning requires avoiding macho and sectarian behavior patterns that weaken resolve and support but violence breeds macho and sectarian behavior. There is more, of course, and the interviewees describe their own paths through the thickets of passivity, civil disobedience, uncivil disobedience (you might call it), and self defense to what for them proved to be a winning stance. I hope they communicate usefully. I hope those who disagree won’t dismiss or ignore, but will instead engage the actual substance.
And about seeking to win reforms?
Sorrowfully, this viewpoint is largely more recent. The idea that a reform is a bad thing surfaced with a vengeance some years back, though it certainly wasn’t new then, and though I think it is less prevalent now. But back when first getting radical and then revolutionary, I felt that dismissiveness too.
Defusing passion into picayune reforms seemed to me the enemy of what we desired to the point where I felt seeking reforms was itself anti-radical. Then I realized that not seeking reforms – higher wages, affirmative action, an end to our military demolishing Indochina, clean air, no nukes, whatever – was ridiculous. It was through battles over such immediate gains that people could become informed, confident, and militant. To forgo such battles was to forgo people’s’ path to commitment. More, the ills reforms tackled needed correction and to say we want the world and we want it now and then ignore the immediate needs of suffering people was horrendously callous.
It was a short additional step to see that we should seek worthy gains – reforms – but in a way leading to a trajectory of changes and developments that could win a new society. We should seek reforms with explanations and actions and organizing that caused those involved not to go home after winning, or even not yet winning, but to fight for more with increased awareness, commitment, and organization able to carry on. And, yes, these attitudes I share are present in the oral history and I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be present in any worthy winning history in any complex times.
What about electoral participation and voting?
The historical recounting regarding elections starts with the the participants in the book airing their views 2016 election campaign and moves on from there. My own current electoral-related views evolved via various election campaigns stretching back but including Jesse Jackson’s, Ralph Nader’s, and Jill Stein’s, and also, quite significantly, due to what Sanders accomplished.
However, the interviewees describe their own electoral attitudes, and with this, and actually much else, the formulations in the book are very much indebted to the events and campaigns in the book. The characters speak from their experiences which read, I think, as totally plausible, albeit undeniably optimistic. The lessons the characters take may have my own experiences that you are asking about lurking in the deep background – but the truth is I think what they offer really does derive from their reactions to their times and conditions – which I merely channelled.
Readers may certainly find fault with the future the book describes in many ways. Readers may think, for example, that various events – stadium scale sanctuaries, industry-wide sit down strikes, city wide public school occupations, massive long distance marches, prison strikes, counter institution constructions, and so on just could not happen, or that they would look very different, and might add that for that reason the lessons taken by interviewees reporting on those campaigns, are not credible, and a more likely take based on more believable events would instead be….
The point is, those would be an excellent discussions to have, to try to reach some agreement about vision and strategy that we can agree does make sense for us.
Your interviewees repeatedly talk about mindsets and moods of the left. What caused you/them to so emphasize attitudes?
The interviewer, Miguel, asked questions about what most mattered to RPS progress, and the interviewees often answered by describing changed mindsets and new attitudes. The sum of those answers does display, I would agree with you, an emphasis on changed mindsets leading to new tactics, campaigns, and constructions. And yes, I find their answers convincing and inspiring, pretty much like I hope many other readers will. My own experiences, after all, are like those of people who will read the book, not like the interviewees who are offering insights they draw from their revolutionary activities.
I know it might sound weird but it really isn’t. When a novelist’s characters have views we don’t deduce they are the novelist’s views. We think they are the views The novelist saw them having in their situations, with their backgrounds. It is similar with RPS/2044. Miguel asked questions, and I would agree that, yes, they are my questions. But the answers flowed from the interviewees, not me.
There is much more in the book, of course, strikes, occupations, elections, conventions, organization building, chapter building, institution building, but let’s change gears a bit. You have been working, without respite, in diverse media, teaching, giving talks around the world, building organization, working on campaigns and projects, writing, and so on over the years. In one effort after another, but always, it seems, fueled by the desire not so much to succeed in each particular pursuit, as to advance the overarching goal, to win a new society. Do you think my perception of that is right, and do you think it has anything to do with your longevity in struggle?
Well, yes. I think being revolutionary actually means having the overarching goal always in mind, which is to win a new society, and seeing each undertaking as part of that process and not as an end in itself. And I hope I have been true to that calling.
I won’t lie and say it is always, or even most often, great fun. I won’t say you win, you win, you win – and maybe once in awhile you take a loss. During my time, considering as you say, where I set the bar, it has been winning only if gains broadly like those in the oral history emerge. Otherwise not.
I have noticed over the years that some larger allegiance than to immediate campaigns not only can situate such campaigns, but also sustains people’s involvements even in dark times. It has been so for me. I think it is so for others too.
Nowadays, I find that very few people I talk with on the left have much notion much less attachment to a real concept of revolution that goes beyond, say, just social democracy. Has defeatism won? Where does it come from? It’s another focus of the book, I know.
This is a pivotal question, I think, dealt with quite explicitly by various people in the book. For myself, I would say it isn’t surprising that very modest aims, when you look below their often quite militant trappings, are now predominant. It is partly a predictable outcome of Trump’s victory reorienting activism to trying to ward off going back to the 1800s. But it is also due to the fact that serious leftists have for so long given so little attention to describing anything beyond social democracy, much less doing so compellingly, substantively.
On the other hand, the Sanders phenomenon should give people serious inclination to do better. Sanders didn’t attract hundreds of thousands of volunteers and become the most popular political figure in the country by charisma of which he has very little, or by media manipulation which instead worked tirelessly against him, and I don’t think it was his programs per se, either. Instead I think he called himself a socialist, called for a political revolution, wasn’t negative much less sectarian and dismissive, and by all of that established a big whiff of change, of hope. And people related mainly to that not details. Of course his program at best was way short of that of, say, RPS advocates in the book, or its candidates and movements, but the point is people want much more,not less, than is being offered, and the oral history shows, I think, what hearing and amplifying their wants could lead to.
What about burn out? Not winning has to get tiring. I am guessing when you got going in the Sixties, you thought winning a new world was inevitable and, if not imminent, certainly not something which a half century later would seem barely nearer. Aren’t you worn down by it all?
At first in the Sixties we thought victory was only a shot away. But before long many of us achieved a more realistic view – not least because we realized winning wasn’t simply a matter of exposing and removing southern sheriffs or Ivy League Dr. Strangeloves. It entailed replacing oppressive institutions, a far larger task.
I hope victory is much more than barely nearer than it was then. The book suggests we could perhaps fully win in a quarter century. The path described seems plausible. Honestly, to me it seems like if we had undertaken it in a very similar manner starting in, say, 1970, rather than the paths we took, we might well have won by now. In other words, I don’t believe in some notion that where you are you must be, where you have been you had to be, and where you will be is pre-written. I think our contingent free choices matter much more than we often realize. On the one hand, it makes me cry for where my generation failed to get us. On the other hand it gives me great hope that current generations can do vastly better.
Finally, do you feel your pursuits have been worth having given your life to them? What follows RPS/2044 for you?
Sometimes, I have grave doubts. I care about winning. We haven’t won. We may be much closer to it than most folks think – but we may also be further away than fifty years ago. I guess time will tell. I do sometimes grieve over missed opportunities. But I would be in utter despair if like many others I looked back and saw no problems with our efforts.
The current or next generation isn’t going to accomplish more than we did in the past because they have a different genetic composition. Or because they are somehow intrinsically superior to the people we were. And it won’t occur because magic material conditions, technology or otherwise, compel it. People will only accomplish more, much more, like in the book, say, if they function differently than we did, leaving behind our faults and finding new virtues. If we couldn’t look back and find things that shouldn’t be emulated, find faults we can learn from in the form of inspiring new attitudes and approaches, then we would be in very big trouble. But we can find such things.
What I feel most sorry for, and worried about, looking back, is not the bad choices or bad attitudes we had over the years. What I find myself more troubled by – indeed, even more than troubled by – is that we who went through the last fifty years have been so bad at communicating useful lessons to today’s young folks. Incredibly, precisely when today’s young think they are innovating they are very often most closely replicating past errors. It isn’t their fault. My generation hasn’t been great mentors. Our writing about our times and it’s lessons hasn’t resonated nearly enough. To conclude by circling back to your first question, maybe the admittedly fictitious characters in RPS/2044 will help correct that.