New Orleans Michael Zweig has had an interesting career on the left. He remembers the 60s and 70s, not as a cultural phenomenon, but as a set of political events that shaped his life and eventual career. He was at the birthing of the Student for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the throes of the antiwar movement at the crossroads of the Old Left and the New Left. He didn’t just march, he stepped into the deep, later joining not the Weathermen, but the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). He ended up in academia, fighting successfully for tenure and wining that campaign, where others might have slipped by, gaining tenure at the State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook and founding the Center for the Study of Working Class Life there.
Talking to him on Wade’s World, I found our paths had crossed from time to time. I was a member of SDS for a minute that overlapped, before dropping out of school to organize against the draft. I was in Cleveland for the inaugural meeting of the old Oil, Chemical Workers’ Tony Mazzotti’s Labor Party. He was there, seemingly hopeful, that the event might launch a party for the working class and its workers. I was there pretty certain that a party that eschewed elections was not really a party at all. He wrote about the New Party and the Working Families Party, as if they were founded by labor unions, instead of ACORN, New York Citizen Action, and District 1 of the CWA.
Those points are simply bystanders in Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism, he takes a measure of his path and the country’s, counting both twists and turns, in both a memoir and a kind of cajoling to young activists and organizers to stay true to the vision of his youth. He also wants them to know the differences between an organizer and an activist. He wants them to understand what is really progressive and what is performative. He wants all of us to understand the difference between productive and nonproductive labor, and to be careful about making assumptions about either without some thinking. He wants everyone to realize that the question of “class is a question of power.” He sees the working class characterized by “belonging,” and middle and upper classes about “becoming.” These are strong points, and they matter.
Over the decades, he has come to understand that social movements, without political action, are something like the king with no clothes. We can’t live without social movements, but they aren’t enough to make change and make it stick. He is conflicted about the differences between reform and revolution, but no longer spitting at either. He wishes the church would get out of the way and stop apologizing for capitalism.
Zweig is an unreconstructed man of the left. I’m with him all the way. He’s emeritus now at SUNY, but still waving the flag, carrying the torch, and hoping people keep to the true course. As I often say, we only lose when we stop fighting. He’s still fighting. I’m with him all the way.