Monday, May 10, 2010

Leslie Evans's Revealing and Brilliant American Radical Memoir

Leslie Evans' recently released memoir Outsider's Reverie: A Memoir (Boryana Books) is a fascinating look at how American radicals in the post World War II generation transformed from alienated '50s teenagers to '60s radicals to late '70s radical intellectuals to '80s leaving radical politics. The books is also a wonderful Los Angeles memoir.

The first seven chapter wonderfully captures Los Angeles and the 1950s and early 1960s youth counterculture there. Evans describes his feelings of being a teen outsider stemming from his parents' belief in spiritualism and seances; his family's poverty; and his parents' disintegrating marriage. He grew up in a tough working class neighborhood of Beverly and Temple just west of downtown Los Angeles. During high school Evans stumbles upon Colin Wilson's The Outsider, a 1950s cult book among the intellectually alienated. The Outsider gave Evans an intellectual identity as well as a reading list--H. G. Wells, Camus, Sartre, Blake, T. E. Lawrence, Nijinsky, P.D. Ouspensky, George Guardjieff et al. Evans as well as thousands of other 1950s outcasts devoured these books developing their outsider identity.

I was growing up in Los Angeles a little younger than Evans also read Wilson and many of these same books. My old friend Lionel Rolfe published Evans' book with his small press Boryana Books; Rolfe's previous press California Classics published my 2nd book of poetry and also Bread and Hyacinths, a book about Job Harriman and the 1912 socialist movement of Los Angeles. Rolfe has long written and published books which are a rebel as well as a intellectual history of Los Angeles in the 20th century.

Evans' memoir has wonderful chapters about his time at Los Angeles City College participating in the civil rights movement and coffee house scene around LACC and then his recruitment into the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party, the dominant U.S. Trotskyist party. He wonderfully describes being the party's first organizer at UCLA and the UCLA radical scene of the early 1960s. He aptly summarizes this time with the Wordsworth quote, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven." These chapters beautifully capture the early 1960s radicalism among Los Angeles youth.

The heart of this book is Evan's 22 years in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), starting in Los Angeles and then over a decade and half in New York during the SWP's glory years when it was central to mobilizing huge numbers in the anti-Vietnam War marches. Evan's book is looking back after he was expelled when the party became a cult in the early 1980s. This memoir is much like The God that Failed, the book of essays by 1930s writers including Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler who were Communists and wrote about became disenchanted with the Communist Party.

Evans' describes SWP as always having cult-like features even in the early 1960s. His party mentor counseled Evans, a poor youth, to drop out of UCLA when he only had one semester to finish as "workers will never trust you if they know you have an escape hatch you can always jump into when times get hard." Evans then flunked out, and soon began his new life in New York working for party publications at subsistence wages and living in tenements. During the 1960s the SWP never wanted its members to have children but since Evans was very young and uninterested in fatherhood at the time, he doesn't complain.

His 1960s/early 1970s chapters give great descriptions of the highs--he learned how to be a reporter, an editor, run a printing press. The SWP still had a lively bunch of middle aged and senior intellectuals who mentored young Evans; Evans wrote about 1960s revolts around the world. Party activists worked hard building anti-war demonstrations which grew and grew, and Evans participating in this making of history.

In the early 1970s the SWP elders had promoted young Jack Barnes to party leadership by the early 1970s while Evans became editor of the party's theoretical magazine. Evans' explains the SWP's decline as Barnes and his group became a tight anti-intellectual clique who wanted the whole organization to speak with the Barnes' voice. Trotskyism have previously had a rich intellectual history in the 1930s with leading U.S. writers around Partisan Review magazine were Trotskyists as well as leading French and Mexican painters; Evans in his magazine wanted continue this tradition by reaching out to the new radical scholars in the universities with the magazine but Barnes stopped him. Evans published articles on welfare, inner cities, prison revolts, pollution, energy crises. Barnes criticized these pieces and then removed Evans as editor of the party's theoretical magazine.

In the 1970s radicals could have continued to hook up together in broad coalitions and innovative journals but Evans shows that the sect leaders stopped this intellectual openness. I saw the same process going on in the women's movement where I edited Sister, a feminist newspaper in Los Angeles running anti-nuclear as well as articles on women. Secterian feminisst wanted to toe a strict feminist party lie leading to the end of the coalition that run the paper and then the end of the newspaper.

With the end of the huge anti-war demonstrations after 1972 the SWP like other radical groups looked for new places to be active as the country grew more conservative. SWP was one of a number of small Marxist groups which sent its members to work in industry, a move which further isolated the leftists from their urban base. For the last 5 years of the 1970s Evans was disenchanted with the Barnes' leadership but hung in his little niche putting out historical books for the party until he went into industry getting a job as a miner in the iron range in northern Minnesota. Evans explains why he and others hung on: "for most of us the party was our lives. We looked on nonmembers the way a Christian fundamentalist looks on the apostate and the unsaved, as not really part of the true human race ...."

Evans describes a fascinating tale of failure as a miner/SWP militant in the Iron Range; the 12 SWP activists valiantly tried but failed to support miners' union dissidents while their party began expulsions of dissidents to the new party line--a great irony. Evans realized that when the miners' faced huge layoffs the tiny group of 12 SWP members on the Iron Range failed at doing anything to stop the layoffs. The "turn to industry" was a huge failure never actually discussed in the party. Evans argues that the Barnes group was disenchanted with Trotsky, wanted to realign SWP "as the U.S. franchise of the Cuban Communist Party," so Barnes made a "preemptive strike against all those in the SWP who could not be trusted to go along with such a shift."

Finally, Evans moved back to Los Angeles where he and many others were formally expelled in bizarre trials--recreations of 1930s purge trials. Evans is particularly poignant in his psychological descriptions of himself and other SWP militants who had spent 20, 30, 40 years in the party which was the most important thing in their lives and were being expelled: "Now they were like deer on a railroad track with the train bearing down on them. I was a sympathetic observer of their dilemma, the collapse of their lives." SWP kept on expelling and losing members until it became a tiny sect of 200 people.

In analyzing his expulsion, Evans criticizes the dictatorial tendencies of Lenin and Leninist-based parties such as SWP, arguing that Lenin both theoretically justified a dictorship as well established in practice the dictatorship. Evams also criticizes Trotsky for agreeing to Lenin's supression of the other left and liberal parties "when he was in power, protesting the arrest and execution of Communists by Stalin" (286). Evans, always a boy from the streets with survival skills, hooks up with an old girlfriend who becomes the love of his life and gets himself into graduate school at UCLA in sociology where he encounters Max Weber and ceased being a Marxist by 1988. He criticizes both three aspects of Marx: 1) Marx's dialectic is wrong; 2) Marx based his theory of 19th century science which was criticized by 20th century science; 3.) Weber not Marx shows that the state could bring dictatorship rather than liberation.

At the end Evans winds up happily married, becoming part of his wife's extended family, and an editor/researcher at UCLA. He and his wife restore a 100-year old house in West Adams district as part of the middle class who gentrify of the inner city near USC. He concentrates not on international but on neighborhood politics--doing anti-gang work. He and his wife build a huge garden around their rebuilt house--literary "cultivating their garden." The books ending--stories of cats and family--could be trimmed a bit. But Evan's memoir is a fascinating tale about teenage alienation in the 1950s, a radical youth in 1960s, the decline of the Socialist Workers Party into a bizarre cult in the 1970s, and the transformation of a young radical into a middle aged man cultivating his garden in the 1980s--the story of many in his generation.


Viresh said...

I think the first seven chapter wonderfully captures Los Angeles and the 1950s and early 1960s youth counterculture there.
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