Friday, February 12, 2010

A Biography Of David McReyonlds

David McReynolds:Socialist Peacemaker

By Paul Buhle

Armed Forces Day Parade, 1979. Photo: Grace Hedemann.
A quiet tradition exists (and persists) within the larger and louder traditions of pacifist and socialist movements, crossing boundaries and creating a unique space between them. Call it socialist-pacifism or pacifist-socialism, if you like. Whatever you call it, David McReynolds has been the torchbearer on these shores for forty years (and counting!). In relating his career, it's worth reaching back into the historical context, out of which his politics developed.

One could easily enough go as far back as William Lloyd Garrison's 1838 appeal to abolish at once slavery and every military force, every appropriation, every celebration and even every war monument. But the Civil War, the mass strikes of the late 19th century and the phantom of a capitalist breakdown bringing socialism like the morning sun all helped to push the urgency of antimilitarism off the map. Apart from incredibly brave and highly personal appeals to U.S. soldiers in the Philippines to lay down their arms, the tradition awaited the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse of European Socialist movements.

Following the lead of Norman Thomas, young Christian pacifists around Devere Allen took up the international appeal of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded in Switzerland as the war began (and renamed International Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1919). A section of U.S. socialists, mostly intellectuals intrigued by their own promised role in President Woodrow Wilson's proclaimed new world order, abandoned socialism to support the war, but the bulk of the socialists stood firm. Within the largest socialist movement that the United States has ever seen, in the face of mass arrests, cancellation of public meetings, vigilante attacks, suppression of newspapers and jail terms, a new pacifism took definitive shape. Public sympathy gradually moved toward the pacifist position, and if not for the Red Scare and the Reds (the U.S. followers of Bolshevism who formed Communist organizations), a mixture of socialism and pacifism might have emerged stronger than ever from the war.

Thomas' Tomorrow'
It did not. But out of the horror of the war and popular revulsion againstit, the U.S. FOR milieu formed a wider circle around a new monthly magazine, The World Tomorrow (1921-34). Not only Norman Thomas-catapulted into fame as a voice for moderate socialism-but also famed Christian figures Sherwood Eddy (a leader of the global YMCA and of the Sherwood Eddy Seminars for ministers) and Kirby Page gave The World Tomorrow moral standing and liberal prominence far beyond socialist ranks.
Within a Socialist Party now badly reduced by the Red Scare, Norman Thomas and The World Tomorrow seemed almost larger than life. A Trotskyist lawyer joked, a bit later, that the Communists attracted industrial workers while the Socialists attracted the YMCA workers, and there was more than a little truth to the crack-except that neither attracted very many during the 1920s. In 1923, however, a small group of socialist pacifists including feminist professor Jessie Wallace Hughan founded a U.S. section of the year-old War Resisters International, the War Resisters League, where David would find his political home almost four decades later. Unlike FOR, WRL was explicitly secular; but it was not explicitly socialist. Over the next decades, both the Christian and secular socialist-pacifists highlighted the importance of Gandhi and the Indian movement for independence, the suffering of the Third World under U.S. as well as European domination and the importance of linking anti-imperialism (and anti-racism) with the ideals of nonviolence. More than a few old-time socialists (like Hughan and famed story-teller and editor of the Oklahoma Guardian, Oscar Ameringer) felt attracted to what these young folks had to contribute to the cause.
Conscientious Support

The Depression brought two more great moments of socialist-pacifism. The Socialists' Student League for Industrial Democracy spearheaded the massive campus strikes in the middle 1930s against militarism, a movement which petered out after the Communist-led American Student Union abandoned pacifism for anti-fascist "collective security." The Socialists reorganized in the Youth Committee Against War, whose relatively small following was magnified by the popularity of Norman Thomas, resolute against U.S. intervention until 1941. The Socialist Party itself had by this time collapsed again, more completely than before; hardly anything remained but the boosters of Thomas and a small pacifist following which bent itself upon support for conscientious objectors.

Enter David McReynolds, only gradually becoming aware of the grand tradition he had inherited. Member of the pro-United Nations World Fellowship Club in his Los Angeles high school and increasingly critical of early Cold War rearmament, McReynolds followed Yankee traditions (including mine) by first becoming a Prohibition Party agitator. The days of the feminist-socialist-prohibitionists were by then long gone. But the public speaking and popular writing that he learned would come in handy. In 1948, at UCLA, when he wrote for the college paper against the Cold War, the Socialist Party contacted him for its Luncheon Club: He was theirs.
Too bad the Socialists had so little to offer a promising young activist. For decades to come, the pacifist tail of World War I days would wag the socialist dog. Then again, socialism needed redefining after the Second World War, as capitalism recovered (to the Marxists' surprise and disappointment) with military outlays underwriting future economic development (surprising even conservative Republicans). Meanwhile, some of the most exciting developments of U.S. radicalism, like the new Pacifica radio stations (founded by WRL activist Lew Hill) or the politically orientd literary avant-gardists like Lawrence Ferlinghetti were pacifist and anarchistic rather than Popular Front-ish or social democratic.

The peacetime draft passed Congress in 1948 and the prospect of McReynolds himself being drafted grew likely. He had some hard thinking to do (and some scripture to read, if he were to claim a religious basis for conscientious objector status) before passing the first hurdle and being halted at the second (the redefinition of existing classifications). He escaped jail on a technicality, as it turned out, but the cloud hovered and educated, as it would the Vietnam War generation radicals down the road.
Bayard Rustin, although destined in later decades to become one of the great disappointments of socialist and pacifist movements, made a world of difference to young McReynolds. A son of West Indian immigrants, initially drawn to the Communists, Rustin had joined the FOR staff during World War II and publicly engaged in civil disobedience for well over a decade. Rustin was also an enormously attractive figure, singing with his guitar (a talent he honed while imprisoned for draft resistance), popularizing civil rights and peace tunes. In 1947 Rustin personally organized the famed Journey of Reconciliation, the first "freedom ride" testing the legality of segregated interstate bus service (members of WRL took part as well). He soon traveled to India that year to meet Gandhi, and learn the philosophy of nonviolence from the master.

No wonder, then, Rustin had an overwhelming impact upon McReynolds at a 1949 Los Angeles church meeting. For Rustin and now for McReynolds, nonviolence was the logical as well as moral way to deal with the necessary struggles against injustice and ultimately for an egalitarian society. The other ways had failed. The young man quickly evolved into a leadership role, squarely between socialism and pacifism, an articulate voice for Rustin's ideas among Los Angeles youths facing the Korean War draft.
Bohemian Pacifism

Perhaps, Reader, it's best to pause and take a breath for a moment here to be reminded about another side to the socialist and pacifist movement of the 1940s-50s. I can only remember the tail end of this era as seen from the provincial Middle West, but there was no doubt that the milieu was not only radical in politics, but also bohemian in culture and quietly non-judgmental in its personal life. Rustin-who would move to WRL in 1953 after the California arrest that ended his FOR career-Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and McReynolds were among the many gay (and some lesbian) activists at home here. Deeply nonconformist, determinedly interracial, a happy alternative for artists and intellectuals of every sexual persuasion turned off by Cold War liberalism and the collapsing Marxist sects, it offered the best contemporary setting for personal growth. It probably saved our lives, and it certainly helped provide the bodies for the scattered anti-militarist protests by WRL and other groups of the early 1950s, as it secured white supporters for the civil rights movement of the South moving gradually north in campaigns against discrimination.

The founding of the WRL offshoot Liberation magazine in 1956 marked another major stage of thinking and mobilization. Goodman, Barbara Deming, Staughton Lynd, David Dellinger and A.J. Muste, among others, set out both to popularize pacifist ideas and to explore the political possibilities opening up with the Hungarian Uprising and the global movement (marked in the U.S. by the founding of SANE in 1955) for nuclear disarmament. The funny thing is, McReynolds came East in 1956 to take a job at Liberation and found it already filled. Happily, he stayed on anyway.

Pretty soon he did work for Liberation, but he also engaged in civil rights actions (under the guidance of Rustin and the legendary Ella Josephine Baker, among others) across the East Coast. In 1960 he joined Ralph DiGia, Jim Peck and Bayard Rustin in the WRL as Field Secretary at $70 per week, as the legend of those Beekman Street days goes (in this case, perfectly accurate). Much of the rest of the factual history will be known to long-time readers of this publication. But McReynolds has been extremely modest in describing his influence upon the antiwar movement and the assorted "new social movements" to follow, and to that subject I now turn.
It would be nearly impossible, even at this late date, to emphasize how greatly Liberation and the milieus around it contributed to what was new, positive and constructive for young people within the New Left. It is almost as difficult to describe how the undertow of Cold War Liberalism, its mentality and above all its institutions, especially the leadership of the AFL-CIO, quashed the revival of the socialist movement and exaggerated the destructive side of the New Left (and Black Power) movements.

Hippie Pacifism
The student movement and the associated underground press that emerged in 1965-66 mirrored Liberation and the WRL with a virtually instinctive pacifism, emphasizing and even exaggerating the bohemian element. WIN magazine, founded in 1966 as a joint project of WRL and the Committee for Nonviolent Action, went even further, consciously merging the new lifestyles and new politics. I don't wish to say that the WRL position paper on Vietnam drafted by McReynolds in 1964 and signed by A.J. Muste and others was universally read in campus circles. Its meaning was absorbed, however, in ways that historians have not yet analyzed. The notion that the U.S. had no moral choice but immediate and total withdrawal was understood perfectly by those facing a draft call. Older antiwar and antistate traditions of various kinds, ethnic and religious-some of them dormant for generations-flowed into the generational "make love not war" sentiment for which McReynolds had formulated and the WRL had broadcast the perfect phrases.
The same notion was understood just as well but perversely by labor leaders and influential veteran socialists who had come to view U.S. leadership as mandatory for orderly world progress. In these circles (and they soon included Bayard Rustin), the heresy of Immediate Withdrawal was proof of Communist sympathies, while "moderate" positions (bombing or fighting at somewhat reduced levels) offered the open sesame to apparently unprecedented prestige and further influence within the Democratic Party. The young people were overwhelmingly on McReynolds' side; the leadership of the Socialist Party, in which he had quietly participated since coming to New York, stood at the other extreme.

Heretic McReynolds went so far as to run for Congress on the Peace and Freedom line in 1968, with Eldridge Cleaver (how hrd it is to imagine now!) at the head of the ticket. That campaign offered a rare moment of true mass education through the electoral process, one vanishing all too quickly into the familiar bipartisan routines. In the 1972 election-the end game for the socialist coalition-the social-democratic hawks furiously boosted "the Senator from Boeing," Henry Jackson, before finally preferring Richard Nixon over George McGovern; the moderates led by Michael Harrington formed the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to remain in coalition with McGovern and the Democrats; David McReynolds led a crew of independent-minded socialists for a distinct and independent Socialist Party. In 1980, he ran for president on the SP ticket (and incidentally, that's how I met David in person, during his swing through Providence), one of the most inviting third party figures of recent decades.

There is much more to tell, but many readers of this magazine know it better than I.. The need for a nonviolent, cooperative and ecological alternative to the New World Order with its perpetual arms race and its economic "race to the bottom" is more evident with each passing decade. Hardly anyone has been so clear on these subjects, so persistent with his ideas, so eager (and affable) to engage in difficult tactical and strategic discussions, so faithful to the ideals of his youth. David McReynolds, on behalf of the socialist traditions that I understand and pacifist traditions that I admire, thank you for being yourself, so very long and so cheerfully!

Paul Buhle is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left and of Images of American Radicalism (which includes a photo of David from a 1980 Pentagon demonstration) among many works on the radical tradition. He teaches at Brown University

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