David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Preserving a Radical Past
Book Review - "Saying No to Power" by Bill Mandel
Creative Arts Book Co., Berkeley 1999, 617pp, $20
Review by David Bacon

I have three daughters. Being a leftwing kind of guy myself (or as my friend and radio cohost, Andrea Lewis, calls me, a Labor Dude) and the son of other leftwingers, I often wonder about my own kids. How much do they know of the history of the movement that's shaped my life?

My dad organized unions for bank workers in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan publishing houses, long before I was born. His union was tossed out of the CIO for being too left. My mother taught courses in radical feminism (what was called "the Woman Question" at the time) at the Jefferson School, New York's red academy of the late 30s and 40s. They must have wondered about me, just as I do about my own children.

Do they hate capitalism the way I do? Will they find and grasp the roots of people's struggle in this country, and reinvent them for a new era and generation? Will they maybe even change the world?

For many years I was confident I would live to see the end of capitalism, replaced with a system much fairer and more human. Nowadays I'm not so sure about the "within my lifetime" part of it. The system seems pretty strong, and much more adept at defending itself than I once believed.

But contrary to those who say we've arrived at the end of history, and that we're living with a system that will endure forever, I know that human beings are capable of something much better. Eventually we'll find a way. That belief links me to generations of people and their struggles, from the abolitionists to Gene Debs to the wobblies to the vets who fought Franco in Spain, to the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements of our own era.

We have a history in this country. It's hardly taught in schools, has no presence on television or in the newspapers, and is hard to find even in bookstores. But it is a history that will not be denied.

Bill Mandel tells part of this history, as he saw and experienced it - a peoples' history. That's what makes his book important - Saying No to Power.

I like the title. These days, the radical buzzword among progressive journalists is that our job is to "speak truth to power," as though the rich and powerful didn't know it. It's not speaking the truth alone that's important, it's organizing people to win some power of their own. It's saying no - having the courage to resist.

Bill Mandel has been a radical his whole life, and a Marxist and Communist for a good part of it. He lived through some of the most important events of our times, and miraculously, remembers them in exhaustive detail. His book is kind of a grand tour of the left of the last 80 years, seen through one man's eyes.

If you meet Bill, there are some things you'll never forget. His voice - the heavy gravellly trace of New York will never leave it. His hard line, as they say, not giving an inch in a political discussion. His efforts, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to put his politics in accessible terms, to make them a natural part of peoples' everyday experience.

That makes his book an interesting combination. He explains the ideas which guided socialist-minded people like himself, through myriad social upheavals. He doesn't apologize or give an inch. But he explains it all in language we all can understand - the description of his own life.

He was born and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan, the son of immigrants. His family, like many coming from the highly-charged political atmosphere of Europe at the turn of the century, lived, ate and breathed politics. For them, it was the most basic part of being alive. Bill inherited that political bent - in fact he drank it in. Before he was even in high school, he and his friends were organizing a Communist youth group among his fellow students, a crime for which his best friend was deported to the Soviet Union at the age of 14.

Bill's father, imbued with the ideals of revolution, set off to Russia to use his engineering schools to build a new socialist society. While this seems strange today, it's only because we're so far removed from the turmoil of the times, when thousands of people left jobs and homes all over the world, going to Moscow to fight for revolution. I think the closest we come in my generation are the many people who went to Nicaragua, or to Cuba, to put their idealism into practice.

His youthful sojourn in the Soviet Union was to prove a watershed experience. He returned, and dedicated the rest of his life, to trying to help people in this country understand, not just Russians, but the many nationalities which together made up the old Soviet Union. His purpose was simple - to see them in all their courage, passivity, and humanity - warts and all.

If that doesn't sound particularly radical today, it's again because we've become so removed from the terrifying reality of the cold war. While we were allies of the Soviet Union during World War Two (which the radicals of Bill's generation termed the war against fascism - saying precisely what the war was against was much more important than numbering it), what followed was one of the darkest periods in American life - the red scare.

That's where Bill shined. Unbelieveably, he started the period as a fellow at the ultra-rightwing Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Having become a sudden ally of the Soviet Union in the war, U.S. policymakers and academics knew almost nothing about the place. Bill helped fill the gaps.

It was a short stint. Soon after the war was over, America adopted the politics of fear at home, and confrontation abroad. For forty years, nuclear war was just a hairsbreadth away. At the height of the hysteria, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for giving the Soviet Union the secret of the bomb, as though they were incapable (described in the U.S. press as illiterate peasants) of building one of their own. Shades of Wen Ho Lee.

In the middle of the madness, Bill began writing books and getting on Berkeley's KPFA radio (and even for a brief time on KQED TV), trying to put a human face on the Soviet people. He not only believed that we would not go to war if we understood their humanity, but he believed that they had constructed a system able to meet basic human needs that went unmet every day here at home. He described their educational institutions, and the access of even the poor to their doors. Free healthcare and job security. Housing at a relative cost of pennies.

It's no wonder that the rightwing hated him. He was called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee more than once, and in what he still look on as his finest moment, in 1960 told the assembled redbaiters that "if you think I will cooperate in any way with this collection of Judaases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States Constitution, if you think I will cooperate with you in any manner whatsoever, you are insane."

Saying No to Power takes the reader through the bitter events at KPFA when, after decades of journalism which no one else would air, he was taken off the radio with little recognition or respect.

Of course, what had happened was that the cold war had ended. The ongoing political hysteria, through which his voice had cut with reason and clarity, began to unwind in the winds of perestroika and glasnost.

And in some ways, Bill lost a little of his edge. He finally concluded that Marxism was a lost cause - that only a free market could bring reforms to the Soviet people, which he believed they desperately needed. What economic reforms brought, however, was something quite different. Mass unemployment. The shredding of the social fabric. People working at jobs where they weren't paid for months at a time. And a standard of living which fell like a rock for the vast majority, while a tiny minority of gangsters and tycoons raided the wealth built up by blood, sweat and terrible sacrifice.

Although 50 million died to save their country from Hitler, the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, leaving inits wake a sea of ethnic wars from Chechniya to the other republics of the Caucusus and Central Asia. Ironically, Bill wrote one of his last books about these non-Russian, Soviet people. Rereading it today, it's hard not to be overcome with a sense, not of newfound freedom, but of great loss endured in the breakup of the old system.

Of course, many people in this country would agree with the crows of victory by the coldwarriors - that it was all for the best, and that a crippled and nominal political freedom was worth the economic devastation. Read Bill's book and make up your own mind.

Autobiography always has the danger of seeming immodest - how can you write about your own exploits without tooting your own horn. It's an additionally difficult position for many writers and academics on the left, who've spent a lifetime denied legitimacy by the established media because of their radical views. People like Bill have always had to fight to get the world to listen and take them seriously. Saying No to Power is a little full of the man himself.

But in the end, it's his memory that is so impressive. That makes Saying No to Power a valuable addition to the slowly growing literature that has documented the history of America's radical left - the union organizers, the anti-racists, the peace activists. It's a valuable contribution to making sure we don't forget our own history, ensuring that another generation doesn't grow up disconnected from their own true past.

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