The author of this blog, John Reimann, was recently interviewed by Luke Pickrell. Here is that interview as he published it.
Interview with socialist activist and writer John Reimann
The following is an interview with John Reimann, a socialist activist (with roots in the union movement) and writer in Oakland, CA. I’ve known John for several years and wanted to learn more about his life. John touches on many topics, including his upbringing in New York, his participation in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, his experiences as a union dissident, and his travels abroad. He concludes with a look at the present and future of capitalist society.
Luke: I’m curious about your life as it relates to your politics and your organizing. Tell me about your upbringing and early years.
John: I was born into a non-religious Jewish family in New York in 1946. My father had been the economics page editor for the newspaper of the German Communist Party. Then he left the party over political differences. That was due to Stalin’s takeover of the party. He was then involved in the anti-Nazi underground. (He told me that his group had a policy of working with any other anti-Nazi group except for the Communists, because they would turn you in if you had a political difference with them!) He then fled Germany shortly after the Reichstag Fire. He returned under the false name of “Reimann” (his original name was “Steineke”) to do research for a book about the German economy under Hitler. That book was published under the title “The Vampire Economy”. He brought his political experiences into my life. My mother was a poster child for a woman rebel. She was a very outspoken, dynamic person. At that time the issue of women’s liberation wasn’t really conscious. To a certain extent, maybe she wasn’t really clear about what she was rebelling against. She worked as a copy editor for Harcourt Brace and I remember her saying that the editors, who were all men, got all the credit and all the money. She had graduated college but wasn’t making much money.
There was the expectation – an unspoken assumption – that I was going to have a professional career; that’s what educated Jewish kids and especially Jewish boys did. But that wasn’t my background in terms of the kids that I hung out with. That wasn’t me. I was caught in this netherworld, in a class sense, and I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t consider myself to be Jewish because the Jewish kids I saw around me were all more comfortable and middle class – not just in their standard of living but also in their mentality. So, I became a semi-unintentional fuckup in school in order to make sure that I would not have a nice, safe, middle-class career.
When I was 12 or 13 my mother married a very nice guy – the kindest man I’ve ever known. He came from the Trotskyist movement. That must have had a political impact on me. I want to emphasize the different social forces that existed in New York City at that time. My earliest political memory was the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. My mother worked with someone who was born and raised in Hungary. This woman had recordings of people saying, “please help us, we don’t want to drown in the blood of our own brothers and sisters in the streets…and that sort of thing.” I had $10 that I gave to my mother for this woman who was collecting for Hungary. That was a political development and it shows the influence of Stalinism in New York at that time.
L: Did you have a sense of the split in the Communist Party around the invasion?
J: I didn’t have any understanding. My mother didn’t either. She was generally politically active but not like my stepfather. I was moved by a sense of injustice.
L: The 1960s must have been eventful.
J: In high school – around 1960 – they had air raid drills under the assumption that the Commies were going to bomb New York City. Everybody had to stop work and get away from the windows. In school, we had to crawl underneath our desks to protect ourselves from a nuclear bomb. People said this is ridiculous, you’re not going to protect yourself from a nuclear bomb. I went to one of these protests against the drills. People were supposed to get off the streets and go inside a building when the sirens went off. They’d have big public protests in Times Square where people sat down in the middle of Broadway. Cops came in and beat these people for refusing to shelter during the ride.
Those of us who were on the sidewalk didn’t get beaten up, but the ones who sat down on the street did and of course, as a kid at that age, I was outraged. As I walked away, I said out loud, “Those cops look like human beings but they don’t act like human beings.” That cop took his billy club and jabbed me in the ribs and told me to shut the hell up. I sent a letter to the police complaining about it, and they sent a couple of cops to our house to interview me. Looking back on it, that would have been the Red Squad fishing for any family connected to the Communist Party.
The Civil Rights Movement had a big impact on me. There was a boycott of public schools in support of integration in 1967. We had a picket line in front of the school and this Teamster rolled up with a delivery of heating oil. He was the stereotype of a Teamster – a big, fat one. guy with a cigar sticking out one corner of his mouth – and he came up to me and said, “Us Teamsters, we don’t cross no fucking picket lines, so you just give me ‘da woid’ and I’ll take this fucking truck and turn it around.” So I said sure, why not? And that’s what he did. I don’t even know if he supported the integration of the school. But he didn’t cross picket lines. Today, few Teamsters or any other union members would take that position against crossing the line.
I should also mention the teachers’ strike of 1968 as a great indication of the social and political climate in New York at the time. Much of the strike was against the decentralization of public schools. The teachers’ union was claiming that decentralization would break the unions, and a majority of the socialist left supported them. But others called it community control of the school system instead of decentralization. Things were complex. I personally knew teachers who refuse to go on strike. They crossed the picket lines. And I personally knew a teacher who did that and was beaten up by the police who were supporting the strikers. During the strike, the teachers who struck continued to get their paychecks. The teachers who crossed the picket lines did not get their paychecks. The Board of Education claimed that it was some computer error. It shows which side the union was acting on at the time. (For further information on the teacher’s strike, see John’s article on his blog).
L: What lessons should be taken from the 1960s and 70s?
J: Can we go on until about seven o’clock tonight? My parents subscribed to left magazines and one in particular – Liberation – stood out. It had articles from younger activists, mostly from SNCC, in which they talked a lot about the role of southern sheriffs and the FBI in collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan. In 1963 there was the March on Washington, which I attended. What really hit me was the speech by John Lewis of SNCC. He gave a really fiery speech, in which among other things, he denounced the Democratic Party and asked: where’s our party?
And of course the Vietnam War. It so happened that my stepfather was friends with Max Shachtman. He came over to our house for dinner. He was a very outgoing and funny guy and I was just enthralled. And then he came out in support of the war. I felt so betrayed by him. Everyone in the Trotskyist movement saw that as a betrayal of everything that socialism – everything that Trotskyism – is supposed to stand for.
L: Did you ever join a political group as a teenager?
J: I was never active in the organized left in those years or in the years that followed. They never held any attraction for me. I went to protests against the Vietnam War but was never involved in organizing.
Oh, here’s a little bit of interesting trivia. You’re familiar with the chant, “hell no, we won’t go”? I suspect it was used for the first time at a protest in New York I attended. The protest was 90% White. Then came a group of black youth chanting “hell no, we won’t go hell no, we won’t go.” I believe, although I may be mistaken, that this was the first time that slogan was used. A bit of historical trivia.
I went to the March on Montgomery and fell in with a group of high school kids in Montgomery. Their whole “vibe” was so warm and welcoming that I wanted to move South, so I moved with my parents to Atlanta for a year and became more active in anti-Vietnam War activities in the south, speaking at meetings, and so on. The vibe was very different from New York, the movement was a lot smaller.
As a kid, the whole idea of non-violence appealed to me, the better part of human beings, and so on. Then, I read a story by Robert F. Williams (author of “Negroes with Guns”) where he described being nearly lynched. He’d pulled out a pistol and said, “I don’t have enough bullets in here for all of you, but the first one that moves I’m gonna shoot.” Having a gun, and being prepared to use it, had prevented violence. So that was the end of believing in non-violence. The Deacons for Defense and Justice also had an impact on me.
L: What impacted your decision to move to California?
In 1968, I started going out with a black woman. She didn’t want to live in New York and I was ready to leave. As an interracial couple, there were really the only two places you could live: New York or the Bay Area. So we came to the Bay Area where I also went into construction. I’d majored in psychology at City College of New York and had come to the conclusion that it was bullshit. I wanted a skill that I could use to contribute to any society, anywhere. My wife at that time suggested being a carpenter, and the minute she said that it just hit the spot.
L: You worked as a carpenter and joined the union at some point.
J: I joined the union in 1970. The Vietnam War was going hot and heavy. A lot of young people, myself included, we’re thinking about revolution. Maoism had a very big influence at that time. Incidentally, I remember going to a reading group in Harlem a few years earlier and they were reading Mao’s Little Red Book. A bunch of high school kids. It shows how revolutionary politics had penetrated the working class youth in New York. We were just angry at the world, which again, was something that I didn’t really understand. And very, very few people of my generation did.
That lack of understanding was a symptom of the failure of the left. The main group at the time was the Socialist Workers Party, and their main thing was single-issue politics. For example, they didn’t connect the Vietnam War with the need for a working class alternative to the Democratic Party. They also didn’t call on the unions to break from the Democratic Party. And I never felt any connection with any of those groups.
As I said, I was angry at the world. When I got sworn in as a union member, we were supposed to raise our right hand, but I put my first in the air like the Black Panther Party. Now you see Donald Trump doing the same thing, but he doesn’t know the history. Hardly anybody knows it. It was the Black Panther Party that popularized that gesture. After I got sworn in the conductor, who was this old-time right winger, came up to me and said, “Hey, kid, when you take the oath to be in this union you do it the right way.” I had decided, well, I’m going to be active in the Union from here on in, but after that and how boring the union meeting was, I didn’t go back for three years.
L: It sounds like things took off from there.
J: There was a big semi-wildcat strike against wage controls that Richard Nixon had instituted and I got caught up in that. We just went from job to job like a flying picket squad. We just invaded the job site and talked to the different carpenters. To me, it was a living and breathing example of what a union really is. In almost every single instance we succeeded in getting the other carpenters to walk off.
I remember one example. I walked onto a job and there was a carpenter sitting in his car getting ready to drive to another part of the job. I went up and said, “Hey, brother, can I talk to you for a second?” I was just standing by the driver’s side window. He asked if I was the union representative – the “business agent” . I said no. He asked if the business agent was around. I said, “He should be, but he’s not.” He told me to get away from his car. He jumped out of his car, both fists balled up, ready to fight. I put my hand on my back and said, “Look, this isn’t against you. This is for you.” I explained that the strike was for a 75 cent per-hour raise. I said, “Are you getting the 75 cents an hour that you’re supposed to?” And he said no. “In other words,” I said, “ for every hour that you’re working, you’re getting screwed out of 75 cents.” And he said, “You know what? You’re right. Get in the car.” So we drove around to the other side of the job, and he got everybody to walk off. It just goes to show how important it is to appeal to workers in terms of their self-interest.
I got bitten by the strike bug and that infection never left me. I got active in the union. There was a whole layer of black carpenters, most of whom had joined the union shortly after the end of World War Two. A lot of them were in and around the Communist Party. One guy I worked with – an older guy – claimed he was the first black member of our local and that he used to come to work with a pistol in his toolbox.
There was a guy named Joe O’Sullivan in the San Francisco local. He’d come to San Francisco from Ireland. He’d been involved in the Troubles and fled before being arrested. The rumor was that he had killed somebody there. He got into the union in San Francisco at a time when they weren’t allowing in the Irish. He built a base of militant Irish carpenters, but they kept the black carpenters out for a while.
This all goes to show what was going on in the labor movements and within the working class in the San Francisco Bay Area.
L: Were there many socialists around?
J: Around the late 70s, the head of the California State Labor Federation, a guy named Jack Henning, gave a speech in favor of a Labor Party. I jumped on that. We organized the Coalition for Labor Party. By then I was also the elected recording secretary of my local and I held Coalition for Labor Party meetings in my local. But around that time I was starting to realize that there’s more to politics than just union activism. There were bigger things to be done.
Something that had a big impact on me, and a big impact on the working class, was the coup in Chile in 1973. I had this feeling that they were fumbling and bumbling, that there had to be some force to push this thing through to the conclusion, or else there was going to be a disaster. Looking back, I can say that there has to be an organized revolutionary force that helps the working class evolve and form the necessary conclusions. In other words, the transitional method: a series of demands and actions to bring that into reality. That’s not an easy question.
I had a feeling that we in the United States were going to face a similar crisis.
And I didn’t want the Pinochet alternative. That was what made me start to want to look around for an organized socialist group.
L: You are observing what’s going on and drawing conclusions. And later, developing a certain language or theory to understand the world.
J: I would bet that there were thousands of workers in Chile who had that exact same feeling that I was feeling, and they didn’t know what to do or how to organize a revolutionary force. That’s what’s needed: something that can translate history, together with the more determined and conscious workers.
L: This idea of collective memory – the party as a repository for history and important conclusions – was what made me want to interview people.
J: I want to emphasize that learning from history is absolutely essential, but so is learning from the present. And it’s one thing to have a general idea of the general outlines – to be able to generalize history and generalize the lessons. But the other 50%, at least 50%, is learning how to translate that into the struggle as it exists in the present. That’s the transitional method.
The most important lessons of history are how you relate to the movement here and now. You learn alongside the wider working class.
L: Did anything come out of the 60s and 70s? What opportunities were missed?
J: The debate between Trotskyists and Stalinists was important but the way it was carried out was dry as dust. The debate was totally isolated and cut off from the everyday experiences that young people, working class people, were having. The so-called New Left was American pragmatism; we don’t have to have ideas, just go out there and do something. We don’t have to study history. We don’t have to study what happened in the revolutionary periods. Maoism had become quite popular and it seemed like the radical revolutionary alternative to the Soviet Union. Really, Maoism is just another kind of Stalinism. Many people unconsciously developed the ideology and methodology of Stalinism. The whole socialist movement was pretty much cut off from the working class and an echo chamber developed. I used to call it the left ghetto with their own little community that was by and large, cut off from the working class.
The objective conditions were part of it. But it didn’t have to entirely be that way. For instance, as I mentioned, it was in those years that I first got elected as recording secretary in my local carpenters’ union, even though my local was not exactly a hotbed of radical thinking, you know, and everybody knew I was a socialist, and I was red-baited by the bureaucracy. But I was able to get elected and everybody knew that I was socialist, so you can break through it, but it was difficult
L: It’s important to understand what’s going on around you, to understand the objective conditions as well as the subjective conditions.
J: I have to say, we see the left ghetto more than ever before in my lifetime, with the fact that the majority of the socialist left has a completely distorted view of what’s happening in Ukraine. And what they call for has practical consequences. It means allowing the fascist-connected Putin to roll through Ukraine and completely smash the working class and society as a whole. What they claim is out of touch with what the great majority of workers in this country instinctively know.
Another good example was Trump and how the left thought about him. I think it was Trotsky that said that revolutionaries can be the most conservative people because we’re so immersed in studying history that sometimes we don’t see that there’s been a real break in the objective situation and we need to look at the world through fresh eyes.
L: Trotsky keeps coming up. Way back when, you pointed me to Isaac Deutscher’s three-part series on Trotsky. What does Trotsky mean to you?
J: Around 1979 or 80 I met people who had recently left the Spartacist League. We began talking about the idea of a U.S. labor party. They wanted a labor party but not a reformist labor party. Having been in a union I was thinking, “I don’t care what you want, a labor party in this country is going to be a reformist party.” I started reading Trotsky around that time, the first things being his writings on Fascism in Germany and the United Front. I don’t know why, but that hit home for me based on my experiences in the union. I recommend the Deutscher series to anyone. It’s a history of the social setting of the Marxist movement from the last years of the 19th century up through the death of Trotsky. It gives you a glimpse into all the battles around ideas and how those ideas relate to the actual developments of the times. I don’t agree with everything he says, but Deutscher is a wonderful writer.
L: You’ve also done a lot of writing. And it seems as if your writing is connected to your travels, along with many other experiences.
J: I started writing for my union’s rank-and-file caucus. Then, in 1982, I met a representative from a group in Britain called the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). I assumed he’d be another socialist sectarian, but that wasn’t the case. I wrote for the CWI and then a group here in the U.S. called Labor Militant. Regarding travel…when was the Rodney King uprising in South Central LA?
J: Yes. In 1988 I stopped working as a carpenter and went to work full-time as an organizer for the Labor Militant. I went down to South Central shortly after the 1992 uprising. I connected with a guy who had been organizing something called the Los Angeles Unemployed League, or something like that. He was a really dynamic character. He was very friendly to me because I was willing to come into South Central LA at night – me, this white guy – to meet him and talk with him. That got me into traveling. I also speak Spanish, and for several years I got involved in helping to build a group in Mexico. The Labor Militant collapsed and I did some writing in various places, including some work for the IWW.
L: You and I met in 2015 or so.
J: That’s bringing back memories and makes me think about Occupy Oakland a bit earlier, in 2011. Almost nobody from the organized left in the East Bay Area was involved in Occupy. Just one guy from the ISO. I think that was because they all had a preconceived notion of how a movement would develop in the United States. And Occupy was completely at odds with that preconceived notion. You can know a lot of history, but if you don’t approach the present in the right way it can hold you back.
I remember my wife was returning home during one of those days. She was waiting at the bus stop and overheard a woman talking to her son. The woman was saying, “You’re going to work? Are you crazy, don’t you know there’s a general strike going on?” That shows how Occupy was starting to penetrate into Oakland’s working class. The only time that the organized left got involved, by the way, was when the union bureaucracy started to move in to crush the radical spirit. The bureaucracy was afraid that that spirit would infect their membership so they figured they’d better do something about it. So they got involved in order to make sure that didn’t happen. Some of the Occupy radicals wanted jobs in the unions. They saw the power and gravitated toward it.
L: It’s interesting to think about preconceived ideas.
J: Another example of the harmful impact of preconceived ideas. In 2011, I went to Cairo during the Arab Spring. Most of the left today says that Victoria Nuland and John McCain went to Ukraine to plan the Maidan uprising of 2014. The uprising was supposedly manipulated and controlled by U.S. imperialists. Well, when I was in Tahrir Square, I met people, Egyptians, who were involved with the Republican Institute, which is the International arm of the Republican Party. Following the logic of those who talk about Newland and McCain and so on, you would have to say that the Arab Spring in Egypt was just controlled by the Republican Party. Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out of the office and people say it was a coup. Well, Hosni Mubarak was forced out of Egypt. Was that a coup? Was that a popular uprising that drove him out? Let’s not forget that Obama, after having supported Mubarak for years, later stepped in and told him to leave office after the general strike.
Different imperialist and sub-imperialist forces are always going to try to take advantage of events for their own purposes, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a proxy war or that it’s being manipulated and controlled behind the scenes.
L: You’ve traveled to Latin America as well, right?
J: I visited Venezuela in 2005 when Chavez was at the height of his popularity. I saw how popular he was, how optimistic people were about building worker cooperatives that were going to get government support. I had a long discussion with two workers who made valves for the oil pumps. It was a huge and important company and it had become a “worker-owned cooperative”. I presented my view: there would be a clash between a network of worker cooperatives and individually owned private companies, like Chevron. We had a long friendly conversation, but they didn’t agree. I wonder what they are thinking today. I had my criticism of various opportunist forces in the revolution in Nicaragua and with the Sandinistas. Often, if you criticize these movements, you get called a supporter of U.S. imperialism. This has present-day implications.
L: Are there prominent ideas on the left, currently, for how the revolution will unfold?
J: I’ll answer this question a little bit differently from how you phrased it. There is a preconceived notion of how the world operates. I’ll give you just one example. I had opposed any hint of U.S. military involvement anywhere in the world until Russia invaded Ukraine. But Putin is not going to be stopped by kind words. The only way he’s going to be stopped is by a military force. And the only way for that to happen is if Ukraine gets arms from the United States. If someone is opposed to the US sending arms to Ukraine they are supporting the invasion. I really wrestled for quite a few days with my point of view. But this is an example of being willing to shift gears and see the world through fresh eyes. We’ve seen that the overwhelming majority of the socialist left has been unable to come to grips with the present situation
Go back to Syria, where any hint of US involvement meant that the US was on the wrong side.
A big chunk of the left saw the war in Syria as a repeat of the US invasion of Iraq.
But the U.S. bombed a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists who were also fighting against Assad.
Let’s go forward to 2016. So many people, including myself, thought that Clinton would win. After Trump won, so many people thought that he could be brought into the establishment. But he wasn’t. I reflected on these events and concluded that something was going on in the U.S. that I haven’t taken sufficient account of. The majority of the left never did an accounting. Fast forward to 2020. I voted for Biden. For the first time in my life, I voted for a Democrat. And I will defend that. But all those on the left that didn’t want to vote for Biden spent almost all their time attacking the Democrat rather than attacking Trump as a fascist-connected candidate for president. There’s no better example of being unable and unwilling to examine something different in the world today. The Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of ten years ago.
That’s a very long way around answering your question. In short, I think there is a crisis in the US working class, and in general in the working class globally. It seems to me that what will be required is some huge shocks to shake things up. Those shocks are coming.
L: How would you sum up what you’ve talked about so far?
J: You’ve thrown me a curveball with that one. I think that the way to sum it up would be to describe the world situation today. The old order of capitalism is breaking down. There’s a reshuffling of relations between the major capitalist powers and major imperialist powers. There’s an opening for all kinds of forces, all kinds of different big players that have now become sub-imperialist powers. There’s a lot of confusion in the world.
You see the decline of the national governments to control what’s happening within their own borders, both in terms of immigration and the economy. Then you throw into the mix the history of 75 years of decline in socialist ideas and socialism as a force within the working class. Look at the confusion that arose from the postwar upswing and the collapse in Stalinism, and then the betrayals of the different workers’ parties and the union leadership here in the United States. It’s a crisis. That’s why the majority of white workers in the United States support Trump and the Republicans. All of this is the background for the theoretical and practical collapse of socialism. This is shown especially in the left’s effective support for Putin. You need a new movement of the working class. You need the development of a genuine working class-oriented socialist movement that can arise out of the ashes of the old.
To answer your question more directly, I would say that it is essential to learn from history – from the history of yesterday to the history of past eras. But one of the most important lessons is learning how to apply which lessons, when, where and to what concrete conclusions. That is a lifelong and collective learning process.