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Unity & Struggle

On Class Suicide

Interview With Paul McLennan

May 18, 2020

A member of Unity & Struggle sat down with Paul McLennan and asked him about his experience industrializingor what, following Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, he calls “class suicide.” This was the trajectory of an entire generation of socialists who, fed up with the limits of Students for a Democratic Society, decided to try their hand at organizing industrial workplaces.

Paul McLennan is a union and community organizer who has worked for many decades in the U.S. South. He is a member of Unity & Struggle and is currently working on a book project with one of his comrades on the personal and political lessons they learned from the study and practice of intersectionality. You can read his reflections in “From Class Suicide to Working Class Rebirth.”

As I was reading, these are the questions that emerged: You talk about class suicide, dropping out of school to get a factory job. This basically defines your future it seems. Do you think this was correct? Would you do it again?

Absolutely, I would do it again. Who would not make the choice to be on the right side? LOL. Seriously, I was young enough that making that shift was not hard. I hope you know that the early chapters about childhood and high school do lay the foundation for a very intuitive understanding that collective power was the only way to overcome oppression. I didn’t make the connection until just now to the “class suicide” idea but it was just an extension of something I had to place my hope in as a child. That there was a greater power out there. I just had to survive long enough to find it. We had a meeting with SDS “veterans” from Northwestern who were only a few years older than us. It was clear to me early that I had to think beyond school and what I would do. Why not just cut to the chase?

What do you think young people should do now? The context in which you did that is pretty different than now but also strikes me a universal feeling of youth. You were in large organizations in a time that felt like, “This is it,” I imagine. Lots of us have at one time or another thought, “This is it!” (I’ve heard lots of comrades reflect on Occupy in this way; they dropped out of school to be full-time activists, only to regret it later.)

I definitely think someone from a middle class position should consider doing what I did. I would never say that someone from a poor or working class background who saw education as an important way to advance and empower themselves should stop that process of development. It should not be something to dictate that people do but strongly encourage? Yes.

I was at the tail end of the “This is it” 1960s wave. That was the story about leaving the steel mill. The security guard saw what was coming. Moving to the cotton mill was an even more intense wake-up call. I am writing now in this next chapter about how the conditions of working and living there forced us to get rid of a lot of that “selling the newspaper at the factory gate” shit. Not if we wanted to survive there. I have no regrets. I met so many great people and had so many “educational” experiences you would never have gotten in a classroom and I will write about more of those. Very grateful.

During this time, did you have any big wins?

Part of my hesitation in writing about all this is there are plenty of stories, but no “wins” in the way you like to read about labor history and strikes, etc. This time is much more about process, which isn’t a bad thing, but certainly not as interesting to the reader. Very little drama, in that sense. The union folded up and left the cotton mill town. The caucus at MARTA won and then immediately things started turning bad. I have very few “wins” to write about. We don’t control what time in history we’re born. I would like to think someone might ask, “How did people keep the flame lit during that onslaught of neoliberalism that started with Reagan?” I can say some things about that!

What was the most important lesson you learned?

To ground myself in those most affected. To put roots down in a SNCC sense and not move. To build relationships with people that I came to care about and love as we engaged in struggle. To look for openings. Never give up a revolutionary direction while at the same time having a full appreciation for the concrete conditions. “Stay in position,” as a queer, African-American comrade in Black Workers for Justice told me.

What do you think of the Maoish tint now?

It would be too easy to make fun of it or to be horrified at the extremes it went to. I try to hold on to some of the good things. It wasn’t all bad. I give us credit for turning our focus to the kind of revolutionary contributions people of color were making and trying to learn from them. I wish I had Modibo’s insights at the time he had them. I had to go down this orthodoxy road a long way and do a lot of work on myself before I could see what we were doing wrong.

What do you think about Harry Haywood’s Black nation thesis now?

Same thing. It’s easy to dismiss out of hand. Working for the day when African-Americans in the South vote to leave? I doubt very much that will happen. But recognizing that the South is unique and has a history of both oppression and resistance that we better be tuned into if we are going to work here? The right of Black people to self-determination and exercising their independent political power? Absolutely. It’s all been corrupted, of course, by what Bruce Dixon calls the “Black misleadership class,” but there are some essential points to Haywood’s analysis that hold up still.

What do you think about this cadre-like organizing where you moved across the country for the group? Would you do it again?

I would do it again, at that age. As big as this country is, why should we say that it doesn’t matter where you live? Just organize wherever you are. No. Some places are more strategic than others and there are too few of us to be spread thin. So, yes. I would be in favor of that as a policy. Not for me now. I have put down roots here for too long. Too late to start over.

Great questions. I will keep them in mind going forward.

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