LESLIE, I HARDLY KNEW YE
Outsider’s Reverie: A Memoir by Leslie Evans (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009).
Les Evans was my mentor. No teacher, no professor, no counselor, no guru was more influential in developing my worldview, my ability to think, whatever literary talent I have, and even my physical fitness. Reaching that conclusion forces me to acknowledge that I was a rather late bloomer, because according to Leslie Evans’ memoir, the period during which we worked together closely was October 1972, when my thirtieth birthday was already in the rearview mirror, through February 1975.
It is evident that I owe an immense debt to Les Evans. I see the Les Evans I knew and admired looking out at me from the cover of this memoir written by Leslie Evans, and I am forced to conclude that they are one and the same person. But as I read the text, I often found it difficult to reconcile the alter egos. I see some significant continuity between Les and Leslie: both were/are highly talented writers, with a gift for storytelling and finding the interesting anecdote or literary allusion necessary to illustrate any point. Leslie’s intense interest in ideas, the ability to clarify those ideas, the subtle humor, the attention to detail—all are familiar characteristics of Les’s prose.
But the ideological content of Leslie Evans’ reminiscences is as foreign to me as the Pandorian landscape in Avatar. The person who most strengthened the foundations of my own rationalist view of the world now apparently embraces the most outlandish forms of irrationalism! A relatively minor corollary of the transition is a shift from strongly defending Marxist philosophical and political views to renouncing them. This is somewhat unsettling for me. External challenges to one’s own worldview are not nearly as distressing as the revelation that the integrity of its foundations may have been somehow compromised. If I am to maintain my own bearings, the Les–Leslie conjunction demands examination and analysis.
Is the difference between Les and Leslie simply a function of the passage of time? Is it a familiar tale of a radical mellowing into moderation—a leftwinger “moving to the right” as he ages? Apparently not, because on the evidence of Leslie’s testimony, the irrationalist element of his outlook was present from his earliest years as a family legacy. His parents were hardcore occultists who participated in—and involved young Leslie in—séances and other forms of communication with the spirit world. As I was reading Leslie’s straightforward account of his parents’ idiosyncratic beliefs, I assumed he was reporting them with a degree of tongue-in-cheek skepticism, but after learning from later chapters of his present outlook, I suspect I may have been lending my own interpretation to his words.
It is not particularly remarkable that a lad raised in that belief system would engage in astral travel and fear ghosts in adulthood, but what astonishes me is that not the tiniest hint of any of this was even remotely evident to me during the two-and-a-half years when I spent eight to ten hours a day in a small office and in almost constant conversation with him. I don’t think I was so comatose that I could have missed it. The Les I knew was a Marxist theoretician and proponent of philosophical materialism of the first order. Forgive me a brief descent into pop Freudianism, but I can only suppose that during that period of his life Les sublimated his interest in the occult into intense political activity, and when the political movement he chose proved disappointing, his otherworldly side—Leslie—resurfaced.
Although subordinate to larger ideological issues, it was Leslie’s about-face from Marxism to anti-Marxism that first manifested itself and was of greatest concern to me. Many of you who are reading this review will know the organizational background that Les and I shared (because you, too, shared it), but for those who don’t, I will back up here and explain how I came to be working with him in the first place. In 1966 I became outraged by the monumental, world-historical crime against humanity known in American textbooks as the Vietnam War. I channeled all of my youthful energy and passion into opposing that horrendous imperialistic murder spree and soon found myself in a small protest group called Atlantans for Peace. There I met a socialist activist named Nelson Blackstock who recruited me to an organization named the Young Socialist Alliance. (We really were young once!)
The YSA’s Marxist ideology appealed to me as a comprehensive worldview. It offered (to use a medical analogy) diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy for the ills of the human race. Diagnosis: capitalism; prognosis: deepening crises ending in utter destruction; therapy: socialism. Whatever the shortcomings of Marxism and its large variety of practitioners, I continue to this day to find it a more satisfying weltanschauung than any of its rivals. The attraction is more than intellectual; it is visceral. The fundamental values of Marxism as I understand them reflect those I feel most deeply: human solidarity with the slumdogs of the Earth, abhorrence of injustice, and loathing of hypocrisy. I think that when people abandon Marxism, their commitment to those values wanes first and then they adjust their belief system to justify their new value system.
From Atlanta and the YSA I graduated to New York City and the Socialist Workers Party, and in October 1972 I was asked to join the staff of the SWP’s theoretical magazine, the International Socialist Review, or ISR. Les was the editor of the ISR and I was one of two associate editors.
When I arrived at the ISR office, my writing skills were raw and amateurish. I became a professional writer under Les’s tutelage. Whatever ability to formulate a coherent narrative or argument I had gained from formal education was a blunt instrument that my experience on the ISR staff honed into usefulness. I now learn, from Outsider’s Reverie, that my instructor was often himself just a step or two ahead of his pupil. In recounting his own tutelage under Joseph Hansen, Leslie cites numerous “lessons” that were identical to those he imparted to me. Knowing that does not lessen my gratitude to Les.
Another of Les’s remarkable talents was not so easily transmitted. He could stand up in front of an audience on a moment’s notice and deliver a perfectly coherent hour-long lecture on any number of topics, from the history of the Chinese Revolution to the theory of the declining rate of profit. There was nothing superficial about these instantaneous discourses. If recorded and transcribed, they would constitute well-organized essays requiring very little editing to be worthy of publication. Apparently that ability to speak extemporaneously requires qualities of mind that cannot be taught, because I don’t think I could develop it with a lifetime of trying.
I mentioned in the first paragraph that Les’s positive influence on me extended even to my physical state, and I suppose I should explain that. When I joined the ISR staff I was 31 years old, weighed 235 pounds, and had struggled against obesity my whole life. In Outsider’s Reverie Leslie charitably describes me at first acquaintance as “a big affable man.” Long story short, Les introduced me to the Atkins low-carbohydrate diet, explained its entire theoretical basis to me with great gusto, and convinced me to give it a go. I did and it worked. Six months later I weighed 165 pounds, and have maintained more than half of that weight loss ever since.
The middle chapters of Outsider’s Reverie, which cover the period of Les’s years in the SWP, are the core of the autobiography; they portray the subject in his prime. They were the most interesting to me because they describe his interactions with many other members of the organization, some of whom I knew well and some not so well. As a member of the leadership bodies of the Party, Les had interactions with central leaders—Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Tom Kerry, Farrell Dobbs, Joseph Hansen, George Breitman, and the patriarch, James P. Cannon—most of whom were only remote presences to me. In spite of his later alienation from Marxism, Leslie’s insights into the characters of the people he describes are incisive and valuable in understanding the further development of the SWP.
But how trustworthy is Leslie’s retrospective account of Les’s activities and beliefs? As an eyewitness to much of what he describes in these chapters, I can vouch for their fundamental honesty. In contrast to most “renegades’ narratives,” Leslie’s explication of the Marxist views Les and I once shared strikes me as remarkably accurate. There is no attempt, as far as I could see, to rewrite history and deny committing what he now considers to be the errors of his youth. In fact, there is a page at the beginning of the volume, just after the title page, that lists a number of the books Les wrote and edited in his Marxist days—books of which Leslie is apparently proud although no longer in agreement with their contents. There are frequent intrusions of Leslie’s current critique of Les’s Marxist views, but the dividing line between past and present is kept sharp enough that readers should not be confused.
A phrase I used above—“ the further development of the SWP”—was euphemistic. From the perspective of both Les and myself the Party crashed and burned in the 1980s. Again, Leslie’s account of its decline and fall is, in my opinion, essentially accurate. What he writes about our separation from the SWP (we were both ejected after Kafkaesque “trials”) and what happened afterward is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on the Party’s transformation into a grotesque caricature of its former self.
Outsider’s Reverie thus joins Barry Sheppard’s The Party and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free on the bookshelf of recent SWP memoirs. Comparing these three is difficult because they are for the most part incommensurable. Barry’s book is, as its subtitle states, a political memoir, while Leslie’s and Saïd’s are intensely personal. The latter two are similar both in their high literary value and their antipathy to Marxism but differ in that Leslie (as Les) was actually a central participant in the events he describes, while Saïd was a child (a true “outsider”) observing his parents’ activities in the SWP. Nonetheless, they both offer useful insights into the SWP’s demise. Sheppard’s The Party focuses on the upside rather than the downside of the SWP’s history, but he is working on a second volume that will cover the Party’s self-destruction and his own role in it. Sheppard’s approach is as straight-ahead as it could be. The other two books come at the subject from oblique angles and add an emotional dimension to understanding it. A forthcoming memoir by the late Peter Camejo, which should be in print very soon, will no doubt be another valuable addition to this body of literature.
Joseph Hansen died in January 1979. In retrospect it seems that his departure left a leadership vacuum in the SWP allowing a younger leader, Jack Barnes, to assert full control over the Party and initiate a drastic transformation in its political program and organizational procedures. Les was among the first to recognize these changes as a process of terminal degeneration. Sometime during 1982 he shared his fears with me, but I had already reached similar conclusions. We both joined the opposition current led by George Breitman, Frank Lovell, Lynn Henderson, Jeff Mackler and Nat Weinstein, and within two years the entire opposition had been expelled. Les and I then both joined Socialist Action, which was formed to uphold the historic Trotskyist program of the SWP, but Les did not remain a member long.
I think the last time I saw Les was probably about 1984, and the last time I heard from him as Les rather than Leslie was 1988, when he sent me a copy of an article he had written. By then I already knew that he had begun to question some of the political views we had formerly shared, most notably with regard to the Chinese Revolution. The article, “The Limits of Socialist Planning,” although not an explicitly anti-Marxist critique, seemed to me at the time to represent a decisive step in that direction. And indeed, in Outsider’s Reverie, Leslie confirms that it was “sometime in 1988” when “I was no longer a Marxist.”
I didn’t have to wait for the publication of Outsider’s Reverie to know that Leslie’s ideological outlook had undergone significant revision. Some e-mail correspondence with him a few years ago revealed that he had developed a great deal of sympathy for the Israeli position in the Middle East. I was curious about how such a conversion to Zionism could have come about but could only speculate. I had earlier reached a tentative conclusion that Leslie had adopted “neocon” politics, but I see now that his transformation was far more complex than that.
The key to understanding Leslie’s complicated ideological trajectory appears to me to be found in the title of his memoir. Why did he consider himself an “outsider”? As one of the SWP’s leading journalists and theoreticians, and a member of the Party’s National Committee, he had always seemed to me to be much more of a movement insider than I was. But it seems that he perceived himself, from early childhood on, as in some sense external to the human race as a whole, or at least outside the mainstream of human events. (I am reminded of Temple Grandin’s description of herself as an “anthropologist from Mars” who studies the human race as an external observer, but hers is a case study in Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.)
As a child whose parents immersed him in the fringe world of spiritualist true believers, it is not surprising that he would have felt alienated from “normal” society and separated from the mundane concerns of ordinary human beings. As a result he seems in his youth to have always been drawn to esoteric pursuits. When in young adulthood he encountered the small Trotskyist movement, it was its apparently exotic nature and pariah status that attracted him.
This was a revelation to me, because it is so completely opposite to my own attitude when I first discovered the socialist movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Its smallness (five members, counting myself), its peculiarity in the eyes of nonmembers, its distinct Marxist lingo, its foreign-sounding tradition of calling each other “comrade,” and all the other things that set us apart from the rest of humanity were not selling points that recruited me; they were barriers I had to overcome before I would join. I had no interest in being part of a small group of virtuosi possessed of arcane knowledge. The movement’s only value to me was in its potential to grow to mass proportions. I took the last line of the Internationale seriously: “The international party will be the human race.” As I saw it, the YSA and SWP were the most effective organizers of struggles—against war, against racism, against bigotry and oppression of all kinds—that I thought should and could win majority support.
How did that work out? It was a partial success, because we did indeed play a significant role in building a mass movement against the Vietnam War. The SWP itself, however, did not turn out well, but I still consider the attempt to build it to have been a worthy effort. The point is that I was motivated not by esotericism but by its opposite—not by the SWP’s remoteness from the rest of the human race but by its potential connections to it.
In his memoir Leslie restates his pro-Israel conclusions at some length. As an indication of the extent to which I did not know him, he now says he considers himself to have been Jewish all along, but there was no hint of any such identity in the years we worked together. I don’t recall whether he ever explicitly told me so, but I remember thinking that he was of Scandinavian ethnicity.
A conversation with Jack Barnes after the June War of 1967, Leslie writes, led him to conclude that although the Party’s official stance had always been against Zionism rather than Jews, the “unchallenged leader” of the SWP held views that “seemed nothing less than anti-Semitism.” Going along with the party line against Israel, he says, “is the one political position I took in those years that I was ashamed of afterward.” I cannot know what Jack Barnes’ private attitude toward Jews may have been then, but I strongly reject any suggestion that the Party’s anti-Zionism was in any sense anti-Semitic. Our pro-Palestinian political stance was founded first of all on solidarity with the Palestinian people as the victims of Israeli repression, but we also made clear our genuine concerns for the Jewish people, who have been misled by Zionism into a death trap in the Middle East. That danger continues to intensify.
Aside from that general statement of position, I won’t attempt a rebuttal of Leslie’s defense of Israel. Much could be also said in response to his new stance against the Cuban Revolution, but it has all been said elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here. As for his explicit embrace of the paranormal and the supernatural, that is not something that lends itself to argumentation anyway. As Jonathan Swift wisely observed, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” I will simply remind Leslie of something Les told me long ago that seems applicable to the present situation: Trotsky once observed of James Burnham that his renunciation of the materialist philosophy of Marxism could ultimately be attributed to “a spark of hope for an after-life.”
Leslie’s lengthy defense of the plausibility of paranormal and supernatural phenomena urges readers to keep an “open mind” on issues such as the existence of ghosts and astral travel. That admonition may seem unexceptionable, but there are limits beyond which giving the benefit of a doubt becomes untenable. As the song says, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.”
I will also forego the great temptation to respond in detail to Leslie’s resurrection of all the old quantum theory chestnuts for yet another assault on philosophical materialism. This is what I call “physics mysticism” and it has become something of a bête noire for me. Contrary to the claims of various mystical authors, modern physics, properly understood, does not offer any support at all for paranormal or occult phenomena.
Leslie’s primary argument boils down to an appeal to the authority of physicists. He writes that his investigations revealed that “the common-sense and philosophical-materialist views of reality are quite far from the thinking among cosmologists and physicists” today. Among the ideas that “raise questions about the underlying nature of reality that challenge both ordinary common sense and the viewpoint known as philosophical materialism” is the Many Worlds hypothesis, which, he says, has “become mainstream, with some 30 percent of physicists at a 1999 conference declaring their agreement.” Another such idea is “the quantum mystery of entanglement,” which is bolstered by the authority of “Nobel laureate physicist Brian Josephson at Cambridge,” who suggests that it “may offer a physical basis for reports of telepathy or clairvoyance.”
I never thought debunking the claims of psychics, spiritualists, and assorted purveyors of supernaturalism would be a good use of my own time, but I used to enjoy reading a little magazine named The Skeptical Inquirer, which was devoted to doing exactly that. Some of the magazine’s stalwart contributors were professional illusionists—stage magicians. These were latter-day followers of Harry Houdini, who tirelessly exposed fraudulent claims of other illusionists who pretended to possess supernatural powers. Their exposés of “scientific” ESP studies, flying saucer reports, and phony magicians often involved demonstrating how skillful illusionists like themselves could fool anyone who was predisposed to falling for their illusions.
Charlatans like Uri Geller would frequently trumpet the endorsement of scientists who he had persuaded that he really could bend spoons with his mental powers alone. The illusionists of The Skeptical Inquirer would then pay the same scientists a visit, also fool them with similar parlor tricks, and then show them how they had been duped. After many years of this, they concluded that the easiest people in the world to hoodwink are physicists—because they think they are too smart to be fooled. I am therefore underwhelmed by Leslie’s appeal to the fact that some gullible physicists give credence to reports of clairvoyance and other paranormal phenomena.
I have focused mainly on the chapters of Outsider’s Reverie that concern the author’s life at the time I knew him, but for both of us there was life after the SWP, and Leslie’s memoir continues to be interesting as it proceeds into the 1990s and beyond. Perhaps as another manifestation of his “outsiderness,” he and his wife Jennifer moved into the notorious part of Los Angeles that now serves as the bleak setting for the television drama Southland. As white folks in a mostly nonwhite and immigrant neighborhood, they stood out, and despite the constant gang activity and drug-related violence that surrounded them, they stayed. The matter-of-factness with which Leslie describes witnessing murders from his window is remarkable.
He and Jennifer didn’t see themselves as social missionaries or anything of that sort; they simply wanted to live and let live. They united with other homeowners in their immediate vicinity to form a neighborhood improvement association, and through struggle they survived. They now have “neighbors we have known for two decades, who make this place a small town within the great impersonal city.” The transformation from Les to Leslie has reconciled him with “the actual society we live in,” so that he no longer sees “the United States, its government, its press, and its major institutions” as evil. Leslie has come in from the cold; he is no longer an outsider.
(Cliff Conner is the author of the magisterial People’s History of Science.)