By Harold Henderson
The decision about getting along in the white man’s world had already been made. I wasn’t going to get along. The problem was, how to resist. –Nelson Peery, Black Fire
When Nelson Peery says this country is in danger of becoming a police state he’s not indulging in metaphor. “My wife and I were driving down North Avenue the other day. There was a white guy lying in the gutter. What was it the Roman poet Terence said, “Nothing human is alien to me’? I stopped to help–if he was drunk, maybe put a pillow under his head and let him enjoy himself. If he was hurt, get help. It turned out he was drunk. I asked if he was OK. He said he had fallen down, asked me to wait a minute, he thought he could get up.
“About then a cop car screeches up. The cop jumps out and shoves a baton in my back. ‘Get up slowly.’ ‘Officer, I stopped to help this man.’ ‘Oh yeah? You probably hit him.’ ‘OK, officer, I’ll make you a deal. You let me go, and I’ll promise never to help another white guy again.’ ‘Oh, you’re one of those wise guys.’ ‘Damn right I am.'”
Peery wasn’t arrested, and he knows that the Chicago Police have been guilty of far worse abuses. But he says, “These humiliations keep driving you toward a position where you break contact with whole groups of people and don’t think of them as individuals.”
When he’s tempted to hate white people he remembers being a young army infantryman on the Pacific island of Morotai during World War II. His all-black 93rd Division was stationed there alongside the 31st or “Dixie” Division. Shooting nearly broke out between the two more than once before the 31st shipped out to invade the Japanese-held Philippines. “Things were very hostile. Then one day a white guy walks into our company area. I happened to be the first to encounter him. He said, ‘My name is William Berry. I’m from East Fryeburg, Maine. I never saw a colored person before I joined the army. In fact, you’re the first colored person I ever spoke to. I don’t believe the things they’re saying about you. I don’t believe God made some people good and some people bad. So I thought I should go over and talk to you and find out.'”
Peery grins just thinking about it. “That guy was one of the most important people in my life. I never saw him again. I have no idea where East Fryeburg is. But he taught me that everywhere you go there will be some decent people. And as soon as you label people as a group, you won’t find them.”
People might mistake Peery for a liberal integrationist, but he’s a foe of capitalism as well as racism. And when he reads the business news he sees his beliefs confirmed. “With every layoff and downsizing the corporate pillars of capitalism are chiseling away at their own foundations. They can’t help it. Computers enable businesses to make more money by paying fewer employees less; if they don’t, their competitors will. But the few surviving employees and the many newly unemployed can no longer afford to buy what the robots and computers make. The old American social contract–go to work, get paid, use your pay to buy what you made–is breaking down, and a new one must be struck. An economy that can produce goods without wages is going to have to distribute them without prices. True communism–the communism of abundance–could be just around the corner. So could true fascism, a police state. The choice will soon be ours.”
You won’t hear this side of Peery if you run into him on the street or in the pages of Black Fire, his beautiful, heartbreaking book about growing up in Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s. Peery has been a revolutionary for at least 60 of his 72 years, but by now he knows better than to try to convert you at first meeting–if at all. “I was the greatest proselytizer in the world,” he chuckles. “But it doesn’t work. You can open doors–that’s all.”
If the 20th century were a house, its basement would be packed with mildewed leftist manifestos. What sets Peery’s manifesto apart is that it’s addressing the issues of the 1990s, not trying to replay the 1960s or the 1930s. I asked Peery’s longtime friend Lew Rosenbaum, former proprietor of Guild Books, if he thought Peery had changed over the years. “Yes and no,” Rosenbaum replied. “Anyone who is constantly being confronted with new information must change. As events and times change, the tactical approaches must necessarily change. At times such momentous events take place as to derail even the strategic considerations. It takes a very flexible person to recognize these changes, and a very principled person to recognize the goal in unfamiliar terrain.”
A compact, vigorous teddy bear of a man, Peery has a salt-and-pepper beard gone mostly to salt and the flexible voice of a natural storyteller. That voice comes through strong on the printed page, but what he has to say isn’t always welcome in this era of identity politics. An old friend proposed that Peery’s book be subtitled “The Making of a Black Revolutionary,” but Peery wouldn’t hear of it. “I’m an American revolutionary,” he says.
Fittingly, the group he belongs to now is called the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. Laura Garcia, who edits the LRNA newspaper People’s Tribune and lives downstairs from Peery, first heard him speak at a San Diego high school more than 20 years ago. “He was talking about making changes, not just for your own ethnic group, but for everyone who needs change.” Then 21 and a new mother, she remembers not understanding everything Peery was saying. “My friends said, “Oh, you have to meet him afterwards.’ I was scared to, but my husband and I went up anyway. He picked up our baby and said, “Oh, what a wonderful baby,’ and he made us feel so important, even though we weren’t. It just oozes out of him that he loves people.”
What does it mean to be a black person in a predominantly white society? What does it mean to be a revolutionary in an even more predominantly nonrevolutionary one? In Black Fire Peery’s lifelong attempt to answer these questions starts simply, with the realization that he would have trouble skipping school in the Depression-era small town of Wabasha, Minnesota. “Being a member of the only black family in Wabasha meant it was the same as caught if I were seen.”
As a teenager in pre-World War II Minneapolis, a comparatively “liberal” place, Peery found that the racial double bind tightened. The whites-only YMCA tried to demonstrate its open-mindedness by getting a neighborhood school gym to stay open for him and his friends to use–but its own doors remained closed to blacks. “Our family was a little island set off in a vast sea of blue eyes and blonde hair,” he writes in Black Fire. “Isolation kept us tightly knit. . . . How deeply the feeling of inner dependence and responsibility ran was brutally brought home when Pop received a long, sad letter from his mother. My Uncle George–Pop’s younger brother–had been murdered. When [George was] assigned a white man’s job in the stockyards in Saint Joe, the white man shot him down in cold blood.
“Pop read snatches of the letter aloud. When he finished reading, he dropped the letter to the floor, buried his face in his hands, and wept from his guts. ‘Oh, God,’ he moaned over and over. ‘I’d rather it had been me. My poor brother–my baby brother.’
“White man’s justice declared the murderer insane at the moment he pulled the trigger and released him. Pop knew the law of the Missouri hills. He carefully disassembled his .38, cleaned it, oiled it, cleaned the fat lead bullets, loaded the pistol, and laid the extra bullets in the suitcase beside the gun. Horrified, Mom watched him. When he closed the suitcase she said, ‘Ben, if you go and avenge this one death, who is to avenge yours? Who’s to care for the eight you leave behind?’
“Pop looked at her. He knew she was right. He turned and looked at me as if he hadn’t known I was there. We looked at each other for a moment. I moved my eyes to meet his and said, ‘Go kill him.’
“Mom pressed the back of her hand against her open mouth. Tears welled up again in Pop’s eyes. When the moment had passed, she simply said, ‘Are you proud of your son?’
“Pop slowly took the pistol from the suitcase, shook the bullets from the cylinder, and laid them on the dresser. By that time four or five of my brothers had entered the room. I could see in their eyes the words that were in my heart: if any person hurts mine–I’ll hurt him. I’ll avenge mine blow for blow. By then I knew that the cohesion of not simply our family but also our race was our only protection.”
That harsh, overt racism is now mostly gone, says Peery, because the economic need for it has largely disappeared. But some of the attitudes of the 1930s that he describes have hung on. “During one of the bull sessions on religion [with white YMCA youth], I raised some point of religious dogma Father Thompson had pointed out to me,” he writes. “I became little less than a saint. . . . In their ignorance, they were afraid of us. When they found out that we didn’t fit their stereotypes, they went to the opposite extreme. They then thought there was no such thing as black, antisocial criminals. This stereotype was harder to fight than the other.”
Peery’s anger about the racism around him sent him in all directions at once. He and his black friends staged annual rock-throwing raids on the segregated White Castle hamburger stand at Lake and 11th in Minneapolis (“White Castle wouldn’t integrate, and I have never eaten one of their hamburgers”). They fought alongside the Irish “Nicolet” gang against the Italian “Chicago” gang to win a safe spot for themselves in the city’s Chicago Park.
Gradually Peery was drawn to the Communist Party, which looked like the black American’s only friend. In 1931 the “Scottsboro boys” were framed on rape charges and sentenced to death after a two-hour trial, and the communists sent lawyers to their defense. At the time, Peery recalls, the NAACP had no blacks on its executive board, and it officially said that the Scottsboro defendants had had due process and should be executed.
Peery was also drawn to the army, which had organization and weapons–two things his people needed and lacked. But in joining the military he just made the contradiction sharper. He and thousands of other young black men found themselves fighting to defend a country where they were treated like dirt. Still, “the objective reality was that Hitler was worse than Senator Bilbo [a Mississippi Democrat and white supremacist]. So I found myself in bed with Bilbo, fighting Hitler. The real world doesn’t have a conscience.”
Summer 1943. The all-black 93rd Division, on maneuvers in jim crow Louisiana, was ordered on a 40-mile march with full field packs. By afternoon the thermometer had hit 105, and not a cloud in the sky. Peery glanced back at his buddy Brad. “Droplets of sweat had left dusty streak marks down his face,” he writes. “The big, hazel, girlish eyes were half closed against the sun and dust. He looked up at me and mumbled, ‘Fuck this shit.’
“Up ahead, around the long curve in the road a white man and two girls were handing the soldiers buckets of water. The two girls would run to the well while the man held out the buckets. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Much obliged, suh.’ The long gulps of cold, clear Louisiana well water were the sweetest drink of my life. “God, that’s good. Thank you, mister.’ ‘Least we can do, soldier. You all boys is givin’ everything.’
“We plodded on refreshed by their effort as much as by the water. Brad turned to me, half smiling. ‘That’s the trouble with this country.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘You never know which of these motherfuckers to hate.'”
The theme reappears at every turn in Peery’s road: What will it take to become free? Will it be race war? Or war between oppressors and oppressed regardless of color? Early on during their training the 93rd Division successfully schemed to surprise and fight the “crackers” of the Eighth Air Force, who were trying to segregate a liberty town in Mexico. In 1945 in the Philippines Peery’s revolutionary sweetheart Carmen turned his mind inside out after he insisted that the colored nine-tenths of the world should unite against the white one-tenth. “I’m doing everything in my power,” he told her, “to learn war and get the rest of our people to learn war and to unite all the colored people.”
“You want to start with Japan?” she asked. “You fought the Japanese?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I fought the fuckin’ Japanese.”
“Why did you fight them?”
“Why? What do you mean, why?”
“Sure they’re colored. They don’t act like it. They think they’re white. They act white. Look what they did to China.”
“Then you are fighting for colored China against colored Japan. Were you fighting for Russia? Why? They’re white.”
Back home in Minneapolis he was a fish out of water–his mind crowded with images of his army buddies and of Filipino comrades still locked in a life-and-death struggle with their U.S.-backed government. “I couldn’t fight with guns anymore and didn’t know any other way.”
One bitter winter night he chugged a pint of bourbon and almost died. In the hospital he realized he had to learn another way. He’d already joined the Communist Party, and in the fall of 1946 he entered the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill.
“I was quite an organizer there my freshman year. I was an open communist. At the end of the year I was elected to the honorary society Grey Friars, an honor normally reserved for seniors.” The initiation ceremony was held at the Interlochen Country Club in a Minneapolis suburb. A black waiter there–an old friend of his family–told him, “You’re the first black man to come in the front door of this place.” Peery gawked at the array of forks and spoons lined up on either side of his plate; as the waiter served each course, he discreetly touched the correct implement.
But table manners were the least of his concerns. As he looked around the banquet room, Peery found himself at a turning point. He was looking at a future that could be his–and “everything I hated was there. Hubert Humphrey. The city’s chief of police. The FBI. A union-busting group. I thought to myself, ‘Either you’re going to be with them or you’re not going to be a professional.’
“I was beginning to realize that the University of Minnesota was a training ground for young black leaders who would talk militant but who could be controlled. That’s where they brought Whitney Young, Carl Stokes–a whole generation. I knew that I had to choose: become a successful black ‘leader,’ or do what my conscience told me.”
One good look inside the belly of the beast was enough for him. “I quit the university. My older brother Ben [now an emeritus astronomy professor at Howard University] went on. He felt very bad about not being able to say and do what he felt was right. Oh, he protested against the Vietnam war and other gross excesses, but there’s a difference between fighting against one particularly bad thing and fighting against the cause of it all.”
“I’m only eighteen, but I know you, America,” Peery writes. “You whore mother of democracy, you who strangle the dreams you’ve birthed. I know your wheat fields and copper mines and hobo jungles. I’ve left sweat on your prairies and, as an eagle, perched on the pinnacle of your Rocky Mountains, I’ve seen your splendid beauty from Kansas to Oregon. Grant me one wish. Be more good than beautiful. Show me yams and cotton and steel and coal unstained by corruption and tears. You would be a gentle thing without your thugs and lynch mobs. Someday I’ll tear out your claws, come close, and love you.”
The Communist Party became Peery’s college. “The character of the party had changed when it shifted its focus from union organizing to an antifascist program. That program attracted a lot of Jews and a lot of professional people to the party, and they tried to balance it by sending working-class cadres to the mostly professional clubs. I attended meetings with a bunch of U. of M. professors. After the meetings there would be a kaffeeklatsch, and we’d listen to classical music.
“Someone asked me, ‘What kind of classical music do you like?’ I was just a kid. I answered kind of flippantly that I didn’t care for that longhair stuff. A woman there, Mary somebody–she was chairman of the philosophy department–overheard me. She said, “Comrade Nelson, this stuff survives because it’s saying something. If you don’t know about it, say so, and we’ll do something about it.’ She enabled me to attend music-appreciation classes at the university.
“Now, I have been one of the most bitter speakers against the communist leadership in this country. They’re cowards, liars, opportunists of the worst kind. Gus Hall is a hack. He’s always had the imagination of a grub worm. His policies were ruinous. But I have never condemned the party. I never forget that my years in the party made me a cultured person.”
Peery became a bricklayer for a living and a professional revolutionary for life. In 1948, when it looked like the country might go fascist, he was assigned to the underground as part of the party’s reserve of leaders in case its known leaders were arrested. He went underground in Detroit, abruptly breaking off contact with friends, family, and Minneapolis comrades. Later he moved to Cleveland and lived alone in a rooming house. Off work he passed the time pounding out his memories on a portable Brother typewriter (decades later, the four-inch-thick bundle of yellowing typescript became the first draft of Black Fire).
Even though he was following the party’s orders, he was getting a taste of its opportunism. “At the end of the war, 1945, 1946, the returning black veterans started a civil rights movement. It wasn’t organized, but we did everything we could. In Minneapolis guys just started going into bars and fighting and sometimes shooting things up. ‘What do you want?’ ‘A beer.’ ‘We don’t serve niggers here.’ ‘Well, motherfucker, you’re going to serve this one.’ In the party we began to realize that this was a mass spontaneous movement of the black proletariat. We helped form the Negro Labor Councils. In Cleveland the NLC brought 12,000 people to a demonstration to break segregation at Sears.
“J. Edgar Hoover would have stonewalled everything, but other government leaders were smarter. They understood that they shouldn’t back us into a corner–if you give people a crumb instead, they think the crumb is a victory.
“So the government and the Commu- nist Party made a deal: the CP agreed to back off from the Negro Labor Councils and to disband the party in the south, in return for the government easing up on prosecuting the party. That’s why the Communist Party here declined–not because of what they did in Russia, but because of what they did here!”
The persecution of top communists may have eased, but throughout most of the 1950s institutional McCarthyism ensured that Peery would have trouble holding a job. “I could work until my social-security number went through. Then the FBI would come around” to make sure that no one with seditious opinions was mortaring bricks. “Some contractors did let them know they didn’t like this idea of destroying liberty in order to save it,” but overall it was a tough decade.
“There’s whole generations of people terrified at this word “communist,”‘ Peery reflects now. “They’re unable to talk to you and think about what it means. This new young generation doesn’t have this fear. They’re not contaminated by it. They’re the first in 50 years to be free to think.”
“I was expelled from the Communist Party in 1954. They never bothered to tell me why; that organization didn’t have much respect for legality. In the final dissolution there were three factions. I joined one–the Provisional Organizing Committee–which was interested in building more of an American communist party than just a tail of the Comintern. Not that I want to red-bait the Comintern!
“I had become so well-known in Cleveland I couldn’t get a job anywhere in town. A comrade encouraged me to go to New York, so I did and got a bricklaying job right away.” Peery worked all winter to pay off debts. “I was making $200 a week–that was huge then–and living in a little room on $35 a week until I paid everyone off. Finally I was debt free and asked a comrade where I could meet young women. He suggested the Five Spot Cafe, a jazz spot in those prebeatnik days down near the Bowery. I walked in, sat down, and ordered a drink for some outlandish price.” Sue Ying, an artist and jazz fiend, came in late. “The only place to sit was next to me. So I always tell people I met my wife at the Bowery in a bar. We’ve been together ever since.
“In the early 1960s I went to Los Angeles as an organizer for the Provisional Organizing Committee. We lived right in the middle of Watts.” The August 1965 rebellion there began practically in his lap. “Everybody labels it as a “riot’–as though the mass of blacks had gone insane. That’s when I discovered that the POC leadership back on the east coast was afraid of going to jail. They sent word that we were to have nothing to do with it. I said, “No way! I’m right in the middle of it! I can’t pass out flyers telling people to revolt, and then tell them to stop when they don’t revolt in ranks and columns!”‘ Once again he was out of the party.
“Those of us who were left formed the California Communist League.” Beth Gonzalez, now national secretary of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, encountered the CCL as an antiwar 18-year-old and recalls being immediately impressed by their willingness to plan ahead and to try to build collective leadership. “One of Nelson’s biggest contributions was forcing the rest of us to make a contribution.”
The group changed its name to the Communist League as it became national and to the Communist Labor Party in 1974, after merging with the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Meanwhile it had moved its national office to Chicago, and Peery came and settled on the near-northwest side. “I like Chicago. It’s the center of the world’s working class, and the blacks here have always set the pace in the freedom movement. I was sick of LA anyway!”
The Communist League had worked with some Ethiopian students in the early 1970s. “When the revolution began there, some of them went back and became part of the government.” Peery sighs. “If ever there was a tragedy in the world it was Ethiopia.” By almost any standard it was a society overripe for change. “Haile Selassie was the emperor, “king of kings,’ presiding over the most barbaric exploitation of the peasants. Women were bought and sold. The average life expectancy was 35.
“There were three forces in the revolution–the army, the national bourgeoisie, and these young ideological students. They got organized and asked me to come over. When I saw the situation–these idealistic young people in government positions, but the real power slipping into the hands of the senior army officers and bourgeoisie–I told them it was going to be like China in 1927. They had no base for their revolutionary aspirations. I said, “All of you are going to get killed. You have to go back into the trade unions and peasant associations.’ They couldn’t do it.
“While the revolution lasted, they tried to follow the Cuban model, where people themselves were armed to patrol their own block.” Peery is no anarchist. He’s perfectly comfortable with good police work in the right context. “I was late getting back to my hotel before curfew one night, and I ran into one of the neighborhood patrols. ‘Comrade, why are you out? Oh, it’s Comrade Nelson!’ Then we heard screaming. There was a guy slapping a woman around down the street. Two guys grabbed him away from her, and the woman leading the patrol whacked him with a gun stock. Blood and teeth flew everywhere. ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ they told me. ‘Tomorrow he’s got to go in front of a woman judge who will give him 90 days on the chain gang.’ And chain gangs in Ethiopia were nothing to kid about.
“I watched this upsurge in the society. The women built their own association house, everything from cutting the wood on up. They didn’t know how, but they learned and they made it themselves. Another time the revolutionary government was putting up a big new building. A counterrevolutionary group assassinated the engineer in charge. Most of them got away, but one kid was chased and trapped under another building. He exchanged fire with those outside. It looked like a standoff. Then finally one woman said, ‘Stand aside.’ ‘Why?’ ‘That person under there–I birthed him, I’ll kill him.’ She went under there and did it. She weighed her freedom against what her son was doing.
“You know what the Ethiopian antitank device was? A human being with a hundred pounds of dynamite who dived under the tank. That complete selflessness–and to see it betrayed by Russia and the stupid left!
“When aid started coming from the Soviet Union they demanded that the “Maoists’–that was me and the students–be liquidated. And eventually there was a counterrevolution in the revolution. The senior army officers and the bourgeoisie seized power and executed the entire Labor League in Ethiopia. I got out by the skin of my fucking teeth. It was very, very sad. The students knew it would happen, but they couldn’t back down.
“But around the world the left was hypnotized into supporting “liberation movements’ like in Eritrea, which was the original Ethiopia. Just because they called themselves a liberation front the left went with them.
“That experience taught me something. It’s in a southern black joke. A preacher and his son are walking down an Alabama country road. A bear jumps out and roars at them, and they run. ‘Daddy, run,’ says the little boy. His dad is pulling ahead. Then he says, ‘Daddy, pray.’ And his father says, ‘Praying is for prayer meeting, not bear meeting.’
“When I joined the revolutionary movement, ideology was everything. Having a revolution meant getting good people together with the right ideas. I thought we could persuade people to change the social system. But it has become clear to me that revolutionaries don’t make revolutions. Ideology is for meetings, not for out in the street. You’re not going to win a revolution on the basis of being correct. Revolutions come when you have a social organization that is incompatible with its basic economy.”
“One reason I wanted to write Black Fire is that almost every communist leader in this country has made a recantation. They say, ‘Stalin fooled us.’ Baloney! You made the best decision you could, based on what you knew at the time.
“As a kid I worked for the circus. Since I wasn’t big enough for heavy labor, I was water boy for the crews. My foreman was an old white Mississippi guy–a real old-fashioned racist, but a good guy. Vaught was his name. One day he took me over and showed me a guy doing the shell game, whipping those shells around and trying to get people to bet on which one he had the pea under. ‘Look at that and don’t forget it,’ he told me. ‘Look at what?’ I asked. “You pay your money and you take your choice. If you pay your money and guess wrong, you lose. Don’t come complaining that you were fooled.'”
Peery may be one of the last radicals anywhere with a photograph of Stalin on the wall of his study. Its presence there is no accident of housekeeping. “Stalin turned his strength and singleness of purpose to the obvious task at hand,” he wrote in a 1991 pamphlet, “Entering an Epoch of Social Revolution.” “That task was the gathering up of the scattered economic energy of the Soviet Union and concentrating it in the form of giant industry. The capitalist countries accomplished this over a long period of time by starving the small producer out of the market. The USSR accomplished this in a very short period with persuasion where possible and with legally sanctioned force when necessary.”
In 20 years Stalin’s USSR accomplished what Peery calls “a miracle of industrialization”–enough to stand up to Hitler. The industrialization, Peery acknowledges, was bloody. “But that’s life. John Brown said that if one half of the population must die to preserve the other half, so be it.”
This description may be sanitized, but Peery’s more general point is hard to refute: the industrial revolution in the West was no Sunday-school picnic. “Would Stalin’s critics dare compare Soviet industrialization to what happened in the USNA [United States of North America] during its period of industrialization?” Peery writes. “These crimes include the genocidal slaughter of the Indians, the looting of Africa of perhaps 20 million human beings to transport barely a million alive into the most brutal, exploitative and complete slavery the world has ever known. They include the rape of Mexico, the destruction of the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico, the plunder of Canada and the continuing blood-soaked exploitation of Latin America. The crimes include the “white slavery’ period of Northern industrial development. The list is endless. The Stalin period was the gentlest, most benevolent industrialization the world has ever known. His ‘crime’ was to consolidate the political dictatorship of the proletariat, build socialism in one country and crush the fascist invaders. The world bourgeoisie has never forgiven him.”
Peery’s powerful rhetoric fudges the historical record: black slavery and the slaughter of Indians were well-established American traditions before the U.S. industrialized. More important is the ethical question raised by where he chooses to lend his sympathies: why should Stalin’s deeds be regrettable historical necessities, while the capitalists’ deeds are crimes? “I don’t want to be in a position of excusing things that are wrong,” he says. “But you have to look at what the Soviet Union attempted to do and the conditions they had to do it under–for instance, there was a trade blockade against the Soviet Union. Russia is not the same as the United States or Brazil. In 1928 Stalin told the party congress, in effect, “We’re 100 years behind. We have 12 years to catch up.’ He hit it right on the nose. To catch up they had to collectivize agriculture and break the peasants’ attachment to the land. It was cruelly done, although I don’t believe that he killed 30 million people. One sector of the population caught hell, another sector did better. But you can’t make Stalin, or Lincoln, or any leader out to be a god, just doing whatever they wanted.”
Peery has a rigorously unsentimental view of history, in which people most of the time have only a little leeway in what they can do. Peery had to fight on the side of Senator Bilbo because the alternative was worse. And in Peery’s view Stalin had to kill a lot of people to be ready for an invasion by a foe who would have killed far more. If you accept that philosophy of history, then the real question is not which side’s hands are bloodier, but which final vision is more credible, more desirable, and more successful? Up to now, most Americans have sided with the capitalist vision, even when it hasn’t seemed to be delivering the goods.
“I ran into a white Vietnam vet the other day begging on the street. I gave him a buck and talked with him for a minute. He said, ‘Yeah, I was over there shooting the motherfuckers.’ What we see in this country is the development of an objectively communist movement that is subjectively anticommunist. This guy needs a home, whether he can pay for it or not–but he would also be happy to go back and shoot more Vietnamese!
“So it has become clear to me that we need an organization of revolutionaries to educate the American people.” Because only now, he says, with the end of material scarcity in sight, is real communism possible. “We don’t need another Stalin. We don’t need a vanguard party. Lenin did, but he was trying to make a revolution in a country that was 98 percent illiterate. Lenin was absolutely correct then. Do we need it today? No. I think Leninism as we’ve known it just doesn’t fit anymore.
“The League of Revolutionaries for a New America is not an outgrowth of the Communist Labor Party,” which was dissolved in January 1993, though many of the same people are involved. “The CLP was a typical Leninist organization. The league is a new approach, a group that is completely nonsectarian as long as you agree to the program, which is to help the American people understand what is going on.” Asked how many members the league has, Peery has to think for a minute. “About a thousand, I guess. I’m not used to belonging to such a loose organization!”
Other than serving on the editorial board of the People’s Tribune, he doesn’t hold an official position in the league. He says the changeover from the Communist Labor Party allowed him to step aside. “At 72, a person has an immense amount to contribute. But you can’t do it in organizational ways.” The majority of the league’s membership and leadership, he says, are women, something that suits him fine. “There’s something about women’s dedication and ability to collectivize–they don’t have such a need to prove something.” In keeping with its emphasis on computer-generated abundance, the league has its own Web page, complete with manifestos and an on-line edition of its newspaper (http://www.mcs.com/jdav/league.html).
“Revolution is the process of creating a society that conforms to the means of production. The sad thing about being a human is that everything in the world evolves except society–the ruling class won’t allow it to. So revolution is evolution happening all at once. Only their resistance makes it necessary, so that we can catch up. Either we’ll reorganize society for our benefit or the others will.” Exactly how the revolution might be accomplished is hard for him to say, but he thinks it would be preceded by collapses in the stock market and in real estate. “At that point everybody will be compelled to act, because the system can’t go on.” He’s well aware that even in the ensuing chaos the ruling class would have most of the resources to shape the outcome. “I’m afraid for our country.”
Of course this is hardly the first time that someone on the left has foreseen revolution right around the corner. But Peery figures that there are 8 million homeless and another 14 million “couch people” in the U.S. This group is the hope of the future, he contends, because in it the privileges whites have enjoyed over blacks are “slowly but surely being liquidated,” making real unity possible across race lines. When an off-duty Chicago cop shot a homeless man last year, Peery points out, the black press tried to make it a racial issue–but the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless transcended that and said, “No, he was one of us.”
Peery has been around long enough that sometimes it seems as though he’s been everywhere, met everyone, and done everything. On a cold February evening he brought that sense to an African-American History Month book signing at the Evanston Barnes & Noble. “Fifty-five years ago,” he reminisced, “I was one of the group that circulated petitions that went to FDR and eventually persuaded him to declare what was then Negro History Week. Of course there’s no such thing as ‘African-American history’ as such. You can’t have slaves without masters or workers without capitalists.”
But he says the history of the slaves may hold a clue for all Americans today. “You see, the Emancipation Proclamation could not really free the slaves as long as the American economy needed to have cotton picked for nothing. No slave could be emancipated unless replaced by a more efficient means of production. All Lincoln could do was change the form of slavery. Not until 1940 did the automatic cotton picker make real freedom possible. And then we were literally kicked out of the plantations. Once blacks were no longer needed to pick cotton, we were free to attack segregation. Then came the civil rights movement. The summary of African-American history could be ‘from the fields to the factory, and from the factory to the streets.’ Each time we were replaced by more productive machines.
“Being replaced by robots or computers is not necessarily a bad thing. If it weren’t for that we’d still be in semislavery! The path of African-American history indicates what the path of the American people in general will be in this situation. Once you’re free of the necessity of going to work every morning, you’re free to fight for your rights”–in this case the right to a fair share of the abundance automation is making possible.
“We stand at the end of prehistory,” Peery writes. “Wageless production cannot be distributed with money. . . . Skirmishing in the epoch of the final conflict has begun. All the objective factors are in place or almost so. From now on the subjective factor, our skill, clarity, astuteness and determination become the decisive factors. This is the moment we have waited for. We need wait no more.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Armando Villa.