Earlier this month when I was at the Left Elect Conference in Chicago, I made a point of stopping by to say hello to Joanna Misnik, who was one of the organizers and also my YSA organizer in New York some 46 years ago.
After a few minutes of pleasantries, she asked me if I could help her understand something. She put it this way: “Louie, what is going on with these people on the Historical Materialism Facebook Group? They are carrying on about you like you were Satan or something.”
I told her that it was probably some ISO grad students and Charlie Post who resent the fact that I disagree with them about the Brenner thesis. It was not the politics as much as my butting in on what is seen as their turf. It would probably be okay if I wrote something for an HM Symposium on the origins of capitalism, but I had no intention of going back to graduate school and getting a PhD in history so that I would have the proper credentials to have a submission taken seriously.
I pretty much had forgotten about the discussion until a week or so ago when someone sent me a link to Paul Heideman’s FB Page where there were 108 (!?!?) comments about the excerpt from my comic book memoir that Heideman had linked to with this preface:
Is Louie the most hilariously narcissistic person on the planet?
Shouldn’t you have actually done something in your life before you do an autobiographical graphic novel?
This struck a responsive chord with most of Heideman’s FB friends. Suzi Weissman, a long-time Marxist scholar who I have never had any contact with whatsoever, wrote: “The thing to know about Proyect is that he is a sniper and a wretched human being. My view is that he should be boycotted, he is impervious to social interaction and a poisonous person.” Well, I do admit that I am impervious to social interaction. The last time I got invited to a Verso cocktail party, it only took me two minutes to decide that I would prefer to watch an episode of “Californication” that aired in the same time slot.
Doug Enaa Greene, a bright young thing from Boston who is a serious Blanqui scholar, elevated the conversation with this perceptive observation: “Fun fact: Louis’ face resembles a butt.” I was crushed to hear this. I had always thought of myself as resembling an anteater but what do I know?
Charlie Post, the runner-up to last year’s Isaac Deutscher Prize, offered his expertise as a historian of the left to correct an apparent falsehood in my memoir:
Debbie Leonard was never a stripper— He is either making this up whole cloth (quite possible) or using “Debbie and Tom” to refer to other comrades.
Well, in fact it was another Debbie and Tom that I was writing about. When I want to make things up, I am quite capable of doing so. Maybe the fact that I was in Houston permits me to write about the things I saw and did, without having to identify people by their last name. Blame me for trying to protect their privacy, I guess.
Someone named Benjamin Fogel takes me to task for supporting the expulsion of my ex-girlfriend when 1) I said no such thing and 2) I had been out of the SWP for 5 years at least when the expulsion took place.
But the thing I keep coming back to is the charge of “narcissism”. If these people had the slightest insight into my psyche, they would realize that the last thing I had on my mind was to write the typical left memoir that celebrates my great accomplishments since in fact there were none. I never edited the Militant like Barry Shepherd or represented the SWP in the FI leading bodies in Europe like Peter Camejo. I was a rank-and-filer with a decidedly “outsider” personality that ruled out the possibility of going on full-time for the party. The short time I spent in party headquarters in the 1970s working on a project to automate the Militant made me wonder what I was doing in such a group to begin with.
The only person in this thread who got it right was Richard Seymour: “To be fair, Pekar does have a particular empathy for the humdrum, the mundane, and the flawed. Louis would presumably have known that when he agreed to be interviewed, and thus that he was going to appear decidedly antiheroic. Which he does.” (In fact, I was not interviewed. The text of the memoir was written entirely by me. All Harvey did was line up an artist and match my words to her pictures.)
Just to put things into perspective, Harvey Pekar contacted me about doing a memoir, not the other way around. It took an hour of wrangling with him over the phone to persuade me that it was worth my while. I told him that I had nothing but tsuris from publishers and was leery of wasting my time. He said, don’t worry. He had a contract with Random House and it was up to him what got published. Unfortunately for me, he died just after the memoir was completed and his widow decided to torpedo it.
I wonder if people like Paul Heideman have ever read Harvey Pekar. Or whether the other people going on about me as if it were a two minutes of hate session in Orwell’s “1984” had done so. In all the time I spent on the phone with Harvey going over the material, I found a great affinity. Both of us had Jewish shopkeeper fathers. Both were “losers” in high school. And both of us were suspicious of the celebrity culture that defined American society. I loved his writings because he celebrated exactly the kinds of people who would never be written up in People Magazine. He, along with Charles Bukowski and R. Crumb, were very strong influences on my memoir. When Harvey told me to put the emphasis on jokes, that was very easy for me having come from a Borscht Belt childhood that exposed me to stand-up comedians like Jack Roy—the stage name that Jacob Cohen used before he became Rodney Dangerfield.
I can understand why people like Paul Heideman, Charlie Post and Jonah Birch would dislike me. How dare I write about the Brenner thesis without having the proper professional qualifications? It is like a medical school dropout doing appendectomies. I guess on the Internet you get to play a doctor (or a historian) without being one.
For people cocooned within the world circumscribed by the NYU Sociology department, York University in Canada, HM Conferences and Left Forum, it must be the ultimate insult to have an upstart blogging about matters that properly should be left to those with suitable credentials. If you have spent $200,000 of your parents’ money to get a PhD from NYU or Columbia University, doesn’t that entitle you to define who gets taken seriously or not? And imagine the indignities that you have to put up with getting tenure, after finishing the degree. The groveling before department chairs. The long and lonely nights writing articles for a journal that nobody reads. And all this to have to put up with some asshole that doesn’t recognize a credentialed authority when he meets one.
Fortunately for me, this is a milieu I am not trying to reach. I am more interested in communicating with people who get up at 7am, trudge down to the subway on their way to work in an office cubicle or a factory. These are the sorts of people who have for the most part never heard of HM or Robert Brenner for that matter. Sometimes I wonder why I ever took the trouble to write about something as obscure as 17th century British history. If Jim Blaut had never subbed to Marxmail, I am sure I wouldn’t have. Given the mess the world is in and given the need for left unity, the last thing we need to be fighting over is ancient history, as if we were Sunnis and Shias killing each other over who was the true heir of Mohammad–or for that matter, debating Trotsky versus Stalin..