PRESERVING A RADICAL PAST
book review - Saying No to Power, by Bill Mandel
PRESERVING A RADICAL PAST
book review - Saying No to Power, by Bill Mandel
Creative Arts Book Co., Berkeley, CA 1999, 617pp, $20
reviewed by David Bacon
We have a history in this country. It's hardly taught in schools,
has no presence on television or in the newspapers, and is hard to find
even in bookstores. But it is a history that will not be denied. Bill
Mandel tells part of this history, as he saw and experienced it - a
peoples' history. That's what makes his book important - Saying No to
These days, saying no is not such a popular idea. The radical
buzzword among progressive journalists is that our job is to "speak
to power" instead, as though the rich and powerful didn't know it. But
it's not speaking the truth alone that's important, it's organizing people
to win some power of their own. That's where Bill's radicalism parts
company from mainstream liberalism.
Bill Mandel has been a radical his whole life, and a Marxist and
Communist for a good part of it. He lived through some of the most
important events of our times, and miraculously, remembers them in
exhaustive detail. His book is kind of a grand tour of the left of the
last 80 years, seen through one man's eyes.
If you meet Bill, there are some things you'll never forget. His
voice - the heavy gravellly trace of New York will never leave it. His
hard line, as they say, not giving an inch in a political discussion. His
efforts, sometimes successful and sometimes not, to put his politics in
accessible terms, to make them a natural part of peoples' everyday
That makes his book an interesting combination. He explains the
ideas which guided socialist-minded people like himself, through myriad
social upheavals. He doesn't apologize or give an inch. But he explains
it in an accessible language - the description of his own life.
He was born and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan, the
son of immigrants. His family, like many coming from the highly-charged
political atmosphere of Europe at the turn of the century, lived, ate and
breathed politics. For them, it was the most basic part of being alive.
Before he was even in high school, he and his friends had organized a
Communist youth group among his fellow students, a crime for which his best
friend was deported to the Soviet Union at the age of 14.
Bill's father, imbued with the ideals of revolution, set off to
Russia to use his engineering schools to build a new socialist society.
While this seems strange today, it's only because we're so far removed from
the turmoil of the times, when thousands of people left jobs and homes all
over the world, going to Moscow to fight for revolution. I think the
closest we come in my generation are the many people who went to Nicaragua,
or to Cuba, to put their idealism into practice.
His youthful sojourn in the Soviet Union was to prove a watershed
experience. He returned, and dedicated the rest of his life, to trying to
help people in this country understand, not just Russians, but the many
nationalities which together made up the old Soviet Union. His purpose was
simple - to see them in all their courage, passivity, and humanity - warts
If that doesn't sound particularly radical today, it's again
because we've become so removed from the terrifying reality of the cold
war. While we were allies of the Soviet Union during World War Two (which
the radicals of Bill's generation termed the war against fascism - saying
precisely what the war was against was much more important than numbering
it), what followed was one of the darkest periods in American life - the
That's where Bill shined. Unbelieveably, he started the period as
a fellow at the ultra-rightwing Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Having become a sudden ally of the Soviet Union in the war, U.S.
policymakers and academics knew almost nothing about the place. Bill
helped fill the gaps.
It was a short stint. Soon after the war was over, America adopted
the politics of fear at home, and confrontation abroad. For forty years,
nuclear war was just a hairsbreadth away. At the height of the hysteria,
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for giving the Soviet Union the
secret of the bomb, as though they were incapable (described in the U.S.
press as illiterate peasants) of building one of their own. Shades of Wen
In the middle of the madness, Bill began writing books and getting
on Berkeley's KPFA radio (and even for a brief time on public KQED TV),
trying to put a human face on the Soviet people. He not only believed that
we would not go to war if we understood their humanity, but he believed
that they had constructed a system able to meet basic human needs that went
unmet every day here at home. He described their educational institutions,
and the access of even the poor to their doors. Free healthcare and job
security. Housing at a relative cost of pennies.
It's no wonder that the rightwing hated him. He was called before
the House Unamerican Activities Committee more than once, and in what he
still looks on as his finest moment, in 1960 told the assembled redbaiters
that "if you think I will cooperate in any way with this collection of
Judaases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States
Constitution, if you think I will cooperate with you in any manner
whatsoever, you are insane."
Saying No to Power takes the reader through the bitter events at
KPFA when, after decades of journalism which no one else would air, he was
taken off the radio with little recognition or respect.
Of course, what had happened was that the cold war had ended. The
ongoing political hysteria, through which his voice had cut with reason and
clarity, began to unwind in the winds of perestroika and glasnost.
And in some ways, Bill lost his edge. He finally concluded that
Marxism was a lost cause - that only a free market could bring reforms to
the Soviet people. What economic reforms brought, however, was something
quite different. Mass unemployment. The shredding of the social fabric.
People working at jobs where they weren't paid for months at a time. And a
standard of living which fell like a rock for the vast majority, while a
tiny minority of gangsters and tycoons raided the wealth built up by blood,
sweat and terrible sacrifice.
Although 25 million died to save their country from Hitler - half
the dead of World War Two - the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, leaving
in its wake a sea of ethnic wars from Chechniya to the other republics of
the Caucusus and Central Asia. Ironically, Bill wrote one of his last
books about these non-Russian, Soviet people. Rereading it today, it's
hard not to be overcome with a sense, not of newfound freedom, but of great
loss endured in the breakup of the old system.
Of course, many people in this country would agree with the crows
of victory by the coldwarriors - that it was all for the best, and that a
crippled and nominal political freedom was worth the economic devastation.
Read Bill's book and make up your own mind.
Autobiography always has the danger of seeming immodest - how can
you write about your own exploits without tooting your own horn. It's an
additionally difficult position for many writers and academics on the left,
who've spent a lifetime denied legitimacy by the established media because
of their radical views. People like Bill have always had to fight to get
the world to listen and take them seriously. Saying No to Power is a
little full of the man himself.
But in the end, it's his memory that is so impressive. That makes
Saying No to Power a valuable addition to the slowly growing literature
that has documented the history of America's radical left - the union
organizers, the anti-racists, the peace activists. It's a valuable
contribution to making sure we don't forget our own history, ensuring that
another generation doesn't grow up disconnected from their own true past.
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