What does it mean to be a political agitator in the 21st century? Until about a year ago, political agitation for me was inseparable from face-to-face interaction in one-on-one group settings or in making or listening to a public speech. This was the foundation for building and sustaining political solidarity. But is there a place for agitation on Facebook? After all, in political Facebook groups there is discussion about what is going on in the political economy but how much do these discussions contribute, if anything, to building socialism. Is it “just talk” which doesn’t lead anywhere, or does Facebook discussion move people to then take action in face-to-face settings? Is participating in Facebook political discussions an incipient form for political activity or is it a distraction from it? While face-to-face agitation is clearly superior in terms of getting anyone to commit to anything, face-to-face is limited in its reach. The Facebook group Jill Stein Dank Meme has about 50,000 members. The reach of Facebook is overwhelmingly superior to face-to-face.
My other question has to do with whether intergenerational solidarity can be built better through face-to-face encounters or on Facebook. In face-to-face interaction, status indicators of class, race, gender and age are present. You can find out where the person lives, what kind of work they do, and who their friends are. Knowing these things both can provide the deepening of political relationships as well as boxing them in. But on Facebook this kind of information can be somewhat suppressed. In terms of building political relationships does relative anonymity work for or against building an intergenerational political community? I do not have answers to these questions, but I do want to share my experiences in with both settings and then draw some tentative conclusions.
In the first section I want to show the power of face-to-face intergenerational influence by telling a story of the impact of three encounters I had with the anarchist Murray Bookchin in the early 1970’s. In the last section I will discuss my own fledgling influence over young socialists on Facebook over the past few months. In order to show the power of face-to-face interaction, I need to talk about the class and political implications of my first 22 years before meeting Murray as a testament of how powerful face-to-face can be.
From grease ball to proto-hippie
I am no red diaper baby. I was born to a conservative Italian Catholic family in 1948 in Brooklyn. My mother’s father was a shoemaker in a tiny store on Bushwick Avenue. He had no employees. My father’s side of the family was very poor (“on the dole”, as they used to say). His own father deserted them and his single mother, along with six other siblings, raised him. My father’s side of the family resembled some of the old James Cagney movies: his brothers were all petty criminals — numbers runners, betting on the horses, loan sharks – and the women joined the convent to pray for the men. My father had drawing talent, which he cultivated despite his family making fun of him. When he was 17 he took his pen-and-ink sketches into Manhattan and some of the commercial artists took him under their wing. He was the only one on his side of the family to “make good”.
My parents understood that while economically they were middle class they really were not culturally middle class. They hoped to bridge the gap by sending me to Catholic schools—grammar school, high school and college. When we moved from Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens they did not know which neighborhoods had Catholic schools that were middle class. The grammar school they sent me to, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, was in a working class neighborhood. Most of the kids I went to school with were Irish or Italian and their parents were butchers, firemen or cops. Class conflicts arose between how my parents wanted to raise me against the expectations from these kids. I had the same situation when I played baseball in the sandlots. In both cases I got my first taste of what Erik Olin Wright called “contradictory class locations.” In both cases working class kids won. You either learned to fight or you were ostracized, shunned or tormented as only children can do. Like most people of my generation, I can testify that Catholic grammar school was hell on Earth. Holy Cross High School wasn’t much better. For twelve years I received about 30 hours a week of authoritarian propaganda along with another two hours on the weekend. By my junior year the cracks were starting to show.
Thanks to “Murray the K” of WINS radio station, I got exposure to rhythm and blues music, which besides baseball, was an island of sanity. I used to go to the Brooklyn Fox Theater which was predominantly working class. Then I stumbled across three rhythm and blues stations—WWRL, WLIB in New York and WKJR, in Newark. I used to go by myself to the Apollo Theatre in Manhattan to catch some of the acts.
When my parents enrolled me in a Catholic community college it was the last straw. I dropped out of college, moved away from home and back to Brooklyn. I went to work in music stores in Manhattan, including the famous Colony Records, for a couple of years. By this time it was 1968, the Attica riots, the Anti-war and Civil Rights movements were coming to a head. Thanks to a few of the political “freaks” in the music store I finally made the transition from “Flatland” to “Spaceland”, as mathematician Edwin Abbot called it.
After about a year I applied to VISTA to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. Then I received a letter from VISTA inviting me to their training program in Atlanta. I “decided” to go (as much as a 20 year old “decides” anything). I lasted a week. There was one of the VISTA orientation leaders who I really liked. On about the fifth day of training, our group was on a bus with him heading for some workshop. I cornered him on the bus and asked him some very pointed questions. He admitted to me he was a Communist and this was all reformist crap. That was all the reassurance I needed.
By force of circumstances that would require more space than I have, I spent the next two years hitchhiking around the country with a six-month stint in Denver Colorado. Once I began hitchhiking, I started to develop an interest in reading. I didn’t have a mentor to teach me the order in which to read things. So when I settled in Denver, I developed my own six month reading program in which I read about 6-8 hours a day five days a week, in addition to holding down a part-time job as a library page in the Denver Public Library. I read about the history of socialism, the elite theory of Mosca and Pareto, McNeill’s Rise of the West, Mumford and Wilhelm Reich – who was white-hot at the time.
Despite being enthralled with my new self-education, I was lonely. I attended some of the demonstrations in the city, but they all were about single issues. I wanted to find a socialist group which could frame these issues, but I didn’t know where to look. All the books I read were about anarchism as a historical movement. Woodcock’s history of anarchism claimed that anarchism had its day. I didn’t quite believe that. Weren’t there contemporary anarchists?
I made friends with people who had a radical bookstore in Denver. There was some anarchist literature in the bookstore, but it seemed like there was a current anarchist organization that was writing about contemporary issues. One guy, Tuggie, was very friendly to me. He told me about their collective, but I really did not know what the next step was. I felt that there was some secret code I had to decipher to “join the movement”, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was too embarrassed to ask.
In any event, Tuggie showed me a book called Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Murray Bookchin. I tore through that book in three days. “This guy must be alive!” I thought. No more dead anarchists for me! I found out Murray lived in New York. I packed my stuff and moved back to New York and stayed with my parents till I could find a place to live.
First Encounter with Murray
Some time in January of 1972, feeling very lonely, I decided to see if I could find Murray in the phone book. Part of me thought “If you were a famous anarchist, would you have your phone number in a phone book?” Hell no! But desperately I poured through the Manhattan phone book anyway. I couldn’t believe it! There was his name in the book. What the fuck! Now for the real test. Do I have the nerve to call him up? There was something about the way Murray wrote that book that made him seem approachable. After about an hour of pacing around in the kitchen, I picked up the phone and called. Of course, I hoped no one would answer to let me off the hook. But someone did answer. It was some kid about my age. “Can I speak with Murray?” I said, my heart racing. The kid said “sure”. After a few seconds of talking behind the scene, Murray came on the phone. “Murray, you don’t know me,” I blurt out, “but I read your Post Scarcity Anarchism book and I want to be part of this. I’m pretty isolated now. Can you give me some direction?” He asked me if I wanted to come over. What the fuck! “Yeah! Where are you?” He gave me his address. It was something like 2nd Avenue and East 6th street. I told him I lived in Jamaica, Queens and I would be there in about 45 minutes. I left the house and probably ran the entire five long blocks to reach the subway.
I reached his address. It was kind of a beat-up apartment building, but nothing was going to stop me. A young kid answered the door. I think his name was Joel Whitehouse. Very friendly, he said “are you Bruce?” I nod nervously. He directs me to the kitchen where Murray must have been holding court. There must have been about three kids my age. Murray asked me some questions about myself. I was able to convey to everyone that I was serious about anarchism, that I had some experiences that qualified me, including some LSD trips which I’m sure met with approval from the other kids, if not Murray. The whole time I was there all of them made me feel that I was welcome and that I was part of something larger. Most of the time was spent with them telling me places I could go to get plugged in. That was the best 90 minutes of therapy I ever had! I don’t remember if I hugged Murray or not. Being Italian it wasn’t far-fetched, but I think I was too much in awe of him to do that.
Romance among the anarchists
Within the next day or so I started to volunteer at the War Resisters’ League. I did phone calling, leafleting and general office work. People were very nice to me but I could see that there were tensions between some of the volunteers. What came as a shock to me (and which I’ve never gotten over) was how miserable leftists treat each other over the slightest theoretical differences. I thought leftists would embody the new world we wanted to create in how they lived and treated each other. I guess I was too much of a psychologist or process junkie to understand that a lot people join the movement for reasons other than to just build socialism, as Eric Hoffer argued.
At one of the War Resisters League meetings I noticed a woman named Susan. I first worked with her one-on-one as a volunteer. She was very kind in explaining to me how things worked. Now at the meeting I saw her power to articulate things at a higher level in a group meeting. I become even more attracted to her. We continued to build a relationship. Finally after a couple of months, I asked her if she had a boyfriend. “Yes”. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Then she said “are you asking me out?” “Well I was going to” I said, “but you are taken”. “My boyfriend and I do not have a monogamous agreement”, she responded. This confuses me. “You mean you want to go out with me even though you have a boyfriend?” “Yes”, she replied.
Now I am really turned on and petrified all at the same time. We fooled around. A week or two later she told me her boyfriend, Jack, who lives in the West Village, is looking for a roommate. “Would you be interested?” she asks me. Whaaaatttttt?? “Yeah,” she said, “I told him about you and he’d like to meet you.” So this is what Emma Goldman went through, I thought to myself. “OK, I’ll meet him”. I meet Jack and like him very much. Nothing between Susan and me is mentioned. I say I need to think about being his roommate. I have to figure out whether I want to go on as a threesome and jeopardize my potential living situation with Jack or do I want to be safe, stop seeing Susan and just work on building a stable home-life with Jack. In one of the few sane decisions of my 20’s, I decided on the second course. Susan seemed to take everything in stride when I explained that I am in over my head. I continued to volunteer with War Resisters League, go to demonstrations with Jack and Susan and others and work for United Parcel Service at night unloading trucks.
Second Encounter with Murray
At UPS I worked a graveyard shift: 11 at night till 3 in the morning. I took the train home from the Long Island City plant back to the village, got to sleep about 4:30 AM and was up by about noon. One day in the late morning I was on 6th Avenue in the West Village around 8th Street where the great basketball games go on, and had just come out of a supermarket. I saw an older guy walking toward me. It looked like Murray. “Could it be? I haven’t seen him since I met him a couple of months ago at his place. It is him!”. I didn’t expect him to remember me because I figured I was just one of hundreds of lost hippies looking to him for direction. But I was also happy to see him because I was in a much better place psychologically, and wanted to show him I turned out okay and was no longer a basket case.
“Murray, remember me? You invited me to your house a couple of months ago?” He looked at me hard, and then said “yes” after pointing his finger at me a couple of times. “How are you doing now?” I rolled my eyes and said “I am in such a better place now. I volunteer at the War Resisters League and I live in the West Village with another anarchist roommate. I work at UPS at night unloading trucks.” After a pause, I looked him straight in the eye and said “you really helped me Murray”. “Well, good” he said. That was the last time I ever spoke with him directly. In retrospect, I wish I could have said “I’ll never forget you”, but I had no way of knowing it would be the last time.
Third Encounter with Murray –
One of the benefits of working with the War Resisters League was that I also found out about radical events around Manhattan. One event was a book club meeting, which I think was sponsored once a month on a Thursday night by the Libertarian League. I had never heard of this, but one of my comrades told me about it. When he told me Murray Bookchin was going to speak, I was ecstatic. Two weeks later I came upon this sturdy one or two story red brick building. I got there 30 minutes early to look around. There were these wonderful old people, but they were not like the old people I was used to: cranky, complaining about their children. These people were warm, offering me cookies. They were like my Italian grandparents, but they were radicals. Around me I could hear others arguing about the Spanish and Russian Revolutions. I remember someone telling someone else he knew Lenin was full of it even before the Bolsheviks took power. However, I began to feel uncomfortable when the number of old people in the room kept growing. I began to feel out of place. Then Murray came in and immediately started talking with the old-timers. Slowly, close to 7:00 some people my age began to drift in. Murray ambled to the lectern at about ten minutes after seven and began speaking. Within about 10 minutes the place was packed. People were standing around the perimeters. There were now many people my age, naturally late.
I was riveted by what Murray had to say, but I was also able to take a step back and notice what was before me. This was a truly intergenerational event that I had never seen before. Well, of course, I did: when I was in church as a child with my parents. But this was no church like I had ever seen! It was better than any church. My eyes moved around the room. I saw old people listening, young people listening and the room was electric.
Imagine this intergenerational gathering as a gathering of trees. On the periphery were the old grandfather trees on their way out, yet soaking it all in, many, perhaps, feeling more confident that with Murray at the helm, the next generation couldn’t go too far off. At the core were us seedling trees, green and immature. At the center, at the heart, stood Murray Bookchin, spanning the generations, in his prime. That is one of my fondest radical moments ever.
Many people may disagree with all of Murray’s politics or some of it, as I do now. But few would deny that despite being 50 years old he had a way with people in their twenties, at the very time when Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman were saying to never trust anyone over 30. When I tell my story about my encounters with Murray to older anarchists they shake their heads and say that was typical of him. It was all in the setting of political organizing. He did not get this following because these people were his students. He was drawing people to him for 10 years before he was eventually given a professorship. Murray knew how to build intergenerational solidarity like no one I had ever seen.
I’ve been a college teacher for 27 years and I certainly have influenced students. I have learned to get along with people 40 years younger than I am, but this is not political organizing. Most of my students have to take my classes for reasons that have nothing to do with my political views or me. Murray drew people to him without having anything to hold over them like a grade.
From Face-to-Face to Facebook
At this time last year I had no Facebook page and was completely cynical about the whole operation. But last spring my partner and I hired a social media movement consultant, Susan, to help us with our political website, and she insisted we have a Facebook Page. Since my partner manages our website and already had her own Facebook account, I figured I’d leave it to her. It was only a casual comment by Susan that helped me change my mind about Facebook. She talked about people who went on Hillary’s page in order to “start up trouble”. Since she was no doubt a supporter of Clinton, I had to be delicate. I asked about what you had to do to make comments. When I found out how easy it was, my mind began racing. At the time I was very excited about the followers of Bernie Sanders as possible converts to socialism, but wasn’t sure how to reach them. Then I thought about Facebook. I searched for the most left-wing group of the Democratic Party, which seemed to be “Bernie or Bust” Facebook group. Posting on my partner’s Facebook account, I then began agitating for the Sandernistas to get out of the Democratic Party. As my posts were controversial and constantly generated responses, my partner began to insist that I get my own account. After a couple of weeks of arguments, I agreed. I lasted on Bernie or Bust until primary night when I was kicked off. I did this for two months until the primary was over. Then I switched to the Jill Stein Dank Meme group and tried to move people to make a more explicit commitment to socialism. Before any of you think I have become obsessed with Facebook and spend all my time there, I actually treat it as a job. I spend an hour every morning on it. This is part of my political commitment to agitate every day.
Is Intergenerational Solidarity Possible on Facebook? Is it Desirable?
I am very fussy about who my Facebook friends are. I examine their posts, look at their profile, and peruse the groups they belong to before deciding to accept their friend requests. As I said earlier, the status markers like class, race, gender, age, occupation and where they live are less easy to determine. What is even more interesting is that I don’t seem to care, since no one asks me about the kind of work I do or where I live, maybe it doesn’t matter to them much either. Still, one thing does stand out. Most of the “friend requests” I receive include their tiny profile pictures. They are not large enough to see clearly unless I go to their page. But when I look at their pictures occasionally I am astounded by how young they seem. Some of my Facebook friends look like they are still in high school, and I’d say most are in their twenties. I am old enough to be their grandfather, yet here we are pecking away. There is a group called “Baby Communist Support Group” which specifically helps young comrades to get their bearings. I have sometimes used my training as a psychologist to help people in this group with depression and anxiety in the similar ways that Murray helped me in my first encounter with him. What’s cool is that they don’t ask me for my credentials, nor do I volunteer them.
Is there such a thing as electronic intergenerational solidarity? The cynic in me says no. You have built nothing with these people. They know nothing about you and there is no continuity developing. It is true that when I have tried on occasion to take the next step: to send an email or have a phone conversation, it has not worked very well. Other than my partner – and 4 or 5 other friends that I know personally as well as through Facebook, I have not yet met a single one of my Facebook friends. If I never actually meet any of my Facebook friends, is that a sign the whole project is a failure? If we never talk on the phone or exchange emails, does this mean I am deluding myself? Most of all, if the fruit of all these electronic interactions does not result in the formation of joint political in-person actions, like founding a party and engaging in a strike does that mean I am not doing any “real agitation”?
Granted Murray Bookchin influenced many people, not just because of building face-to-face political relationships, but because he wrote books, made public speeches and attended conferences. Still he could not reach potentially thousands of people every day. I am no Murray Bookchin, but I have thousands of young people I can influence every day by investing at least an hour or longer if I choose. Am I co-creating intergenerational solidarity? Am I wasting my time? My conclusion is that Facebook is good for spreading seeds far and wide and talking people through the clarification and support stages of being political radicals. Face-to-Face work is for nailing down the time, place and circumstances and for building a political practice. However, all the political practice that develops can in turn return to Facebook for consolidating and spreading more seeds.
Since my story is experiential and I claim no expertise, I welcome your feedback either in direct emails or by sending me articles pertaining to the subject.