Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 25, 2010

Review of an ex-Trotskyist’s memoir

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:37 pm

Les Evans

Leslie Evans’s Outsider’s Reveries

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

(Swans – January 25, 2010)   Available as a download from Scribd.com, Les Evans’s Outsider’s Reveries is the latest memoir revolving around the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of the United States.

The best known of these is Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will be Free, which seeks to draw a contrast between the author’s youthful yearnings to be normal — hence the skateboard — and his parent’s mad obsessions about overthrowing the capitalist system. For obvious reasons, the memoir was a big hit with The Washington Post and The New York Times. On Facebook, the proud author announced that he has been meeting with HBO. For those who have followed this premium cable station over the years, it is well understood that they find material about dysfunctional families very marketable. It is difficult for me to imagine a fan of “The Sopranos” finding that much of interest in the sad tale of an apolitical youth being forced to boycott grapes, but the HBO executives do have a solid track record making money (the primary ambition of the author they are courting, it should be stressed). Tales about creepy Communists do fit in well, after all, with the American ideological landscape.

In 2005 Barry Sheppard, the number two man in the party for many years until he was expelled, published the first installment of The Party, titled The Sixties: a political memoir. This is a largely self-congratulatory effort that contains page after page of the party’s accomplishments in the antiwar movement and other struggles under the author’s stewardship. The second volume is obviously much more difficult for the author to produce since it is largely about the party’s transformation from a powerful force on the American left into the bizarre cult-sect described in Sayrafiezadeh’s work, written from the perspective of a tender youth who was not even a member. For Sheppard, the challenge is to produce a volume two that amounts to an autopsy on the party he spent decades building. Perhaps it will prove insurmountable.

Just before his death in September 2008, Peter Camejo was putting the final touches on an eagerly awaited memoir that will be released posthumously as The North Star in honor of Fredrick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper. Unlike Sheppard, Camejo was dubious about the Socialist Workers Party even when he was part of a troika including Sheppard and Jack Barnes, the cult leader. In the early 1980s, when I was working with Camejo to build the North Star Network, a loose grouping incorporating his new non-sectarian politics, I once asked him if he regretted not having left the SWP much earlier. Expecting him to say that he should have left after around 10 years (about the length of my own tenure) rather than 20, he said he should have left after several months. There was a dogmatic character that disturbed this young Fidelista from the very outset.

Les Evans’s memoir is a study in ambivalence. As a top leader of the SWP primarily involved with writing and editing, Evans retains a lot of the “then we did this and then we did that” quality of volume one of Sheppard’s book but as another expellee, he cannot help but look askance at the party. Looking back in retrospect, he sees warts that were not obvious at the time. Unlike Camejo, however, these misgivings — as we shall see — flow from an anti-Communist perspective in line with the “god that failed” literature. This ambivalence is what gives the book its dramatic tension, notwithstanding the superfluous details that typically show up in an unedited manuscript published by a vanity press. For example, there is a chapter on the author’s stepchildren, an obvious labor of love but of almost no interest to people outside the Evans household.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy59.html

25 Comments »

  1. Hey,

    I’m starting a new Libertarian Socialist blog called Rosa’s Ghost. I
    was hoping you might add it to your links page. It would be a great
    help. Thanks in advance.

    http://rosasghost.wordpress.com/

    Comment by Hobbes — January 25, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  2. DECLARATION: I’ve read Les Evans’s book from cover to cover. I contributed a number of photographs which I’d taken while a member of the SWP, mostly at Oberlin, during the 1970s. It’s a professionally-produced volume with an extensive and detailed index, so therefore it’s very useful if you’re looking for specific individuals.

    Les Evans provides a useful self-portait of a single individual who was radicalized in the 1950s and 1960s and followed the path which a certain number did, into left-wing and revolutionary organizations such as the US Socialist Workers Party. That’s where I met Les Evans myself, for example. Today he’s not a left-wing militant, but more of a modest and unaffiliated Social Democrat who believes in liberalism of the Franklin Roosevelt variety. I know this because I’ve asked him, though he speaks for himself, of course.

    The author’s political trajectory is his own. His various descriptions are his own, and they tend to be sympathetic toward people he knew in what is now in some ways another epoch, another life. Today he lives quietly in Los Angeles, working on local reform issues in his neighborhood. It’s quite a change from an earlier life which laid claim to transforming the entire world along socialist lines.

    And his political estimates and reflections aren’t ones which I share in important areas. He’s soft on Israel and Zionism, for example. But his pen-portraits of many of the people he cites seem quite in accord with my own impressions of those individuals.
    He’s not enthusiastic about the Cuban Revolution, either.

    Louis Proyect seems bent on assasinating Les Evans’s character and framing Evans (up) by characterizing his book as rooted in “an anti-Communist perspective in line with the “god that failed” literature.”

    Yet, rather peculiarly, Louis Proyect describes his own political trajectory in a not-dissimilar manner as one who, “returned to New York in 1979 with the intention of putting socialist politics behind me”
    http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy59.html#author

    Today Louis Proyect presents himself as judge, jury and executioner of everyone else who passed through the Socialist Workers Party. Well, in time we’ll see what his own contribution to the history of the SWP will amount to. My guess is that there will be useful elements along with the bile. The question is, what percentage of which will it be?

    It seems there will never be a really comprehensive history of the SWP written by any of those of us who were participants. My guess is that’s never going to be possible because those who left the SWP (voluntarily as did Louis Proyect) or involuntarily as did Les Evans, and many others like myself, have followed such different political trajectories in the subsequent years. So we’ll have to make do with partial contributions from several sources. From those we can draw our own conclusions about what it all meant.

    To me, life and the years spent in the Socialist Workers Party and its youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (1962-1983) and an offshoot (1983-1988) were useful ones which contributed to who I am as an activist today. There was lots of wheat along with the chaff. The philosopher-songwriter Bonnie Raitt says that, we can’t change the past, but we can leave it behind. As it turns out, the past is very much with us in many ways, as the production of volumes like that of Sheppard and Evans testify, and Proyect’s as well, though it remains to be seen.

    For these reasons I very much appreciate what Les Evans has contributed to an understanding of that experience many of us had in the Socialist Workers Party of the United States of America. Anyone who actually belonged to the SWP during those days will find much of value to remind us of those days, and more than a few matters to ponder and reflect upon today. Most likely no one will draw the same conclusions which Les Evans drew politically.

    Others probably also won’t rush into print to denounce other individuals and their contributions toward an understanding of the SWP as Louis Proyect has immediately done. In time I suppose we’ll have Proyect’s report on those days, and on his own role in them, to evaluate. I will hazard one guess, since I never knew Proyect when we were both in the SWP: He never tried to bring about a change in the policies of the SWP with which he disagreed. He simply left the group against which he continues to carp relentlessly today, decades and decates after his voluntary departure from the SWP.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 25, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

  3. For those who are somewhat mystified by Walter Lippmann’s comment, I can only say that Les Evans wrote that under Lenin and Trotsky, the Cheka killed people “for being moderately well off”. I think that people who write such garbage deserve to be denounced but I would hardly describe my review as a denunciation.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

  4. Um, Louis Proyect was from what i understand a low-level activist, while Evans was number 2 in the SWP, but somehow it’s Proyect who’s to blame for not fighting hard enough to change the Party? Lippmann is being frivolous.

    Also drama-queening it quite a bit talking about “character assassination”…

    Comment by Antonis — January 25, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  5. The irony, of course, is that Les Evans, and others like him, have drawn conclusions about socialism and the struggle for socialism that soon may be declared null and void. That dissent and disgust is dripping like hot molasses from every lampost is visable for all with eyes to see. Frankly, I have never seen anything like it, and I’ve been in the fight as a teenager since 1974. I believe the long slumber may soon be at an end, and no I’m not exaggerating.

    Comment by Dave — January 25, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  6. I haven’t been a teenager since 1974, but I was a teenager when I first became involved in the fight.

    Comment by Dave — January 25, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  7. Dissent and disgust does not necessarily mean the long slumber of socialism is at an end. Socialism remains discredited in the eyes of Americans, for reasons some good and many bad. In the absence of viable leftwing leadership this dissent and disgust is likely to continue to manifest itself on the far right of the spectrum.

    What is viable leftwing leadership? I think that’s a fair question: those of us who signed up with the left in our youth haven’t really seen much of it. My own ten years in the sectarian left back in the day don’t fill me with hope.

    It’s interesting to read these different perspectives on where we’ve variously ended up. It’s also clear to me that there is lack of consensus on what, exactly, to coin a phrase, is to be done.

    Comment by ish — January 25, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

  8. The initial, rightward drift to the early expression of this disgust is due mainly to the fact that “they” have two parties and “we” have none, and both of these parties continue to “shift” politcs and “public opinion” to the right. However, the bubble has burst, so to speak, and the only alternative for the exploiters is to further attempt to extract wealth from the class of producers. This is the meaning of the so-called health-care reform. More money in their pockets, less in ours. Another bubble is currently under construction. One must assume that there will be a resoponse; that huge swaths of the class will not go into ruination without a fight.

    Comment by Dave — January 25, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

  9. “Antonis”, whoever that might be, from his clandestine outpost, writes:

    4.Um, Louis Proyect was from what i understand a low-level activist, while Evans was number 2 in the SWP, but somehow it’s Proyect who’s to blame for not fighting hard enough to change the Party? Lippmann is being frivolous.

    LIPPMANN replies: I didn’t say Proyect didn’t fight hard enough. I doubt that Proyect fought in any way at all. What I actually wrote (one typo included) was this:

    “He never tried to bring about a change in the policies of the SWP with which he disagreed. He simply left the group against which he continues to carp relentlessly today, decades and decates after his voluntary departure from the SWP.”

    If Proyect had ever been critical, he might have said so. Had he ever written a discussion bulletin article, he might have said so. I doubt that he ever did anything to try to change the SWP’s direction.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 26, 2010 @ 3:30 am

  10. Evans was never even remotely close to Number 2. He was a technician, a writer, an educator, but never a top figure in the SWP. In the book he explains that. Probably “Antonis” hasn’t read the book, either.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 26, 2010 @ 3:32 am

  11. Les might have not been a very top figure but he was on full-time for nearly 20 years and on the national committee for about half that time. As far as being critical of the SWP, I think I made the point in my review that I thought the turn was based on false political projections but stood up in front of a local convention in NYC to tell people how great it was. In other words, I was doing the same kind of pretzel logic that Costa-Gravas dramatized in “The Confession”. I wish I could turn the clock back and write a blistering document that would have gotten me expelled.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 26, 2010 @ 3:59 am

  12. Thanks to Louis, for telling us that he spoke out publicly in favor of positions he didn’t hold. Yes, at times I tailored my statements for the framework of discussions, and didn’t always say everything that was on my mind. But I NEVER once made any kinds of statements in support of views with which I didn’t agree.

    Louis’s words are worth remembering:

    “I thought the turn was based on false political
    projections but stood up in front of a local
    convention in NYC to tell people how great it was.”

    Presumably Louis publicly spoke in favor of positions which he didn’t hold because, consciously or unconsciously, he was seeking the approval of the leadership. Alternatively, at a minimum, he was going along with the mindset of the majority of the membership during those times. That’s not a sin. That’s simple human trait. Nothing really to be ashamed of. Most people want the love of their parents. We all make mistakes from time to time.

    By the way, far from being #2 in the SWP, Les Evans never rose to full membership in the SWP National Committee. I asked him about that tonight.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 26, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  13. The whole point of reading a review is to make up one’s mind whether to buy a book or not. So no, i haven’t read the book. Well done stating the obvious.

    As to your other point, Proyect may have said things he didn’t believe in, however he has remained a communist and didn’t end up a miserable liberal.

    Comment by Antonis — January 26, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

  14. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in my review since I was so put off by the anti-Communism, but the book is very informative and well-written (leaving aside some gaffes that an editor could have picked out.) Since it is only $5, I do recommend it for people trying to figure out “what went wrong” with the 60s sectarian left even though Les’s analysis is faulty. He is a very good story teller.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 26, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

  15. The main point of your article seems to be that this book is being considered for a TV show. The BBC in England ran a series of shows about the radical left not so long back and they managed to present a distorted caricature, the activists were portrayed as a load of fundamentalists, who didn’t allow debate, were middle class, banned Christmas, lived in squats etc. I hated the programme as it was nothing like the working class socialist family I grew up in, which was always involved in lively debate, trade union activism and loved Christmas! They could also mention how highly education and science is valued among socialists.

    The main goal of the programme was to separate and alienate socialism from the working class, which is why it was presented as some utopian commune outside the real struggle. This is how socialism is always presented.

    Comment by James — January 26, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  16. Louis, I have a question. We all know that history of emancipatory politics is infested with apostasy and fidelity is the hardest thing to retain when the bare necessities of life comes to us. But I wonder if there is a counter example. Do you know any right-wing douchebag or liberal-progressive-relativist who turned out to be a radical leftist after his 30s, 40s?

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — January 26, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

  17. Good question, Mehmet. It took something like the Vietnam war to have that effect on people like Daniel Ellsberg.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 26, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

  18. Mehmet asked about a “any right-wing douchebag or liberal-progressive-relativist who turned out to be a radical leftist after his 30s, 40s?”

    Philip Agee comes to mind right away. He was a former CIA agent who turned on “The Company” and became a revolutionary-minded activist until his final breath.

    Ramsey Clark has certainly made an extremely sharp move to the left after having previously been Attorney General of the United States.

    Chalmers Johnson might not be described as a radical leftist, but as a former Cold War imperialist political analyst he’s become pretty thoroughly anti-imperialist today.

    Eugene V. Debs was a militant trade unionist who later became a revolutionary socialist.

    Probably there are others as well.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 26, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

  19. Man, am I glad I wasn’t in the SWP. You guys still seem to be recovering. The only thing I can think of that’s worse than the internal hijinx is the idea that the “democratic” party will ever be about anything again, or the comfort levels that some reformed marxists out there seem to be able to establish with those vultures.

    but I know the “democrats” well, having been out there doorbelling for them more times than I’d care to think about, and they’re not even what they were ten years ago, much less twenty years ago. They’ve got no respect for the working poor, and most of their intellectual leadership are dogmatic mothahs with the brains of a gnat, i.e., people who still think they’re going to save capitalism from itself. It wasn’t always that way, but they’ve backpedaled a lot since the days of George McGovern. And anyone who’s known them at the grassroots level, as I have for almost forty years, anyone who came up working poor who’s really being honest with themselves knows what a bunch of shits those people really are.

    I’m no fan of any of the self-righteous twits I met in the brief time I was a fellow traveller at the SWP’s “Militant Labor Forums”, but I’d take one Jerry Hunnicutt or the late Phil Hellesto, or Hilda Cuzco, over any of the so-called “workplace and community organizers” I knew and know through the “democratic” party. I never learned anything I could use over the long haul from any “democratic” party activist, and this has become particularly true over the last ten to fifteen years.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — January 26, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  20. I was in the SWP for 26 years. It was a wonderful experience.

    Comment by Dave — January 26, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

  21. CORRECTION:

    Louis wrote that the book was $5.00, but in fact the list price of OUTSIDER’S REVERIE is $18.95, or $9.95 as a Kindle. I don’t have one of those Kindle machines, but the book is easily-enough purchased at Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=outsider%27s+reverie

    In any event, the book is definitely worth the price.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 27, 2010 @ 12:23 am

  22. It’s $5 from Scribd (http://www.scribd.com/doc/24157045/Outsider-s-Reverie-by-Leslie-Evans).

    Comment by louisproyect — January 27, 2010 @ 12:34 am

  23. Yes, but that’s a download, not a book. Who is going to read a 438-page book, not including thirty pages of photographs, on their computer screen, or print it out on their home printers?

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — January 27, 2010 @ 12:39 am

  24. I too was at Oberlin in the 70s and met Leslie Evans, albeit as a kid.

    The man is a disgrace to socialism in general and to working class history in particular.

    Anybody who was allegedly a “writer…educator” for a once relatively successful revolutionary socialist party that then spouts verbatim lies from the most reactionary sovietology is a contemptible turd whose book should be boycotted out of principle.

    What sort of “writer… educator” never grasped that if it were really true that “Tens of thousands of people were shot without trial by the Cheka while Lenin and Trotsky headed the government” then such incidents would have been documented in diatribes a thousand different times by Mensheviks, Anarchists, Monarchists and Social Democrats of every stripe during the years of Trotky’s exile, nevermind the commercial press.

    There would in fact have been a well documented hue & cry over such events identical to the one levelled against Trotsky over the Kronstadt uprising illustrated in the link below:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/01/kronstadt.htm

    Fact: As the link above clearly shows, in the late 30’s, when there was no mistake about Stalin’s crimes, there was a well orchestrated campaign from broad sectors of the left (and right) to make the case that Bolshevism was responsible for Stalinism. Yet in this campaign the only evidence these forces mustered was the supression of Kronstandt! That should convince anybody with an iota of common sense in the nature of class struggle propaganda that Leslie Evans is full of shit.

    Worse, he’s a zionist who waxes nostalgically about FDR, another terriffic liar who didn’t even have the guts to expose the fascists who would attempt to overthrow him:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/nasser10032008.html

    … not to mention the enormous lies FDR almost certainly perpetrated to get American workers to line up for slaughter in WWII, probably the only thing that saved capitalism from the intractability of the Great Depression:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1R2GGLL_en&q=fdr+planned+pearl+harbor&aq=2&aql=&aqi=g3&oq=FDR+plan

    I’m sure by now, however, that Mr. Evans has convinced himself that WWII was “a good war.”

    What a schmuck!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 27, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  25. Just noticed this:

    >“Antonis”, whoever that might be

    “Antonis” is probably just a schmuck, as opposed to grand old Walter Lippmann, who is undoubtedly a very important personage, to the effect of issuing DECLARATIONS in all caps on the internet.

    Comment by Antonis — January 27, 2010 @ 5:38 pm


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