SAYING NO TO
By William Mandel
Reviewed by Walter Lippmann
Change-Links newspaper, June 2001
Must greed, violence, racism and sexism forever be driving forces in society, or is an alternative possible? Are they inherent features in capitalism, or just very bad beliefs and practices, which people of good will can ultimately overcome? These questions have long challenged thinking people.
Capitalism, though unstable, remains dominant in most of the world. SAYING NO TO POWER(Creative Arts, Berkeley, 1999) is William Mandel's account of over seventy years of activism for social justice within the pre-eminent capitalist power on earth. I found Mandel's account an enthralling read.
I first heard of Mandel when seeing OPERATION ABOLITION, a propaganda movie created by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to defend itself against public protests. A talented speaker, Mandel told the committee and the world, that he would simply not cooperate with its investigations into legal political activity. His words echo to this day, and can still be heard on Mande l'swebsite. Such public defiance contributed to the ultimate demise of HUAC.
SAYING NO TO POWER is a fascinating, if somewhat overlong narrative. 83-year-old Mandel is the author of several books and innumerable academic and popular articles on the former Soviet Union and other subjects. He's already working on his next book. Mandel will be speaking and signing at Skylight and Midnight Special this month (see calendar for June 10 and 11).
Born to parents who supported the Russian Revolution and the Communist Party, USA, Mandel spent a year in the Soviet Union as a child, became fluent in Russian, and later a self-educated expert in Soviet affairs. He visited the Soviet Union numerous times, and has returned since the USSR's collapse. Without formal academic credentials, and holding very positive views of the USSR, Mandel was excluded from academic life, during the Cold war and since, though he's highly knowledgeable.
He joined the Communist Party USA in the early, with which his relations were at times stormy. Expelled at one point (for maintaining contact with his mother-in-law, whose politics differed from the CP), he defended himself vigorously, but was never told the outcome of his political trial. They simply didn't take his dues or allow him to attend meetings. No one would explain it to him. His politics hadn't changed.
Some years later, the CP invited him to rejoin. He made a half-hearted effort at seeing through a reform process after the Khrushchev revelations of the crimes of Stalin. When the CP didn't reform as he hoped, he left permanently in 1957.
Mandel remained an independent activist, very sympathetic to, but not uncritical of, the USSR until the early 1990s. For most of his adult life, Mandel considered himself a Marxist. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mandel longer considered himself a Marxist or even a socialist.
Today he calls himself a "pragmatic humanist". But he hasn't moved to the right. Unlike others who've made such a transition, Mandel doesn't repudiate his past. He mostly celebrates it, (without nostalgia). He just no longer believes a higher form of society is possible.
And an amazing life it has been. This review can barely suggest a fraction of Mandel's experiences. He's a fine narrator, describing activities, struggles and people he's met. It's easy to see how his popular 37-year career in broadcasting began.
You can see how his gifts for public speaking and advocacy could have gained him a successful career in business, academia or even mainstream politics, had he chosen it. Mandel, however, committed his entire life to struggles for free speech and social justice. We're all enriched by his choice.
Most striking are his relentless opposition to racism and sexism, and an ability to learn from people he's involved with. He fought for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, Paul Robeson in the 1940s, W.E.B. DuBois in the 1950s, the Black Panthers in the 1970s to Mumia Abu-Jamal today.
Mandel's disillusion with socialism and Marxism flowed from his belief that the Soviet Union was a socialist society. Had he not mistook a flawed experiment, a contradictory mix of positive and negative features, for the real thing, he might not have given up the socialist goal.
To be a real alternative to capitalism, socialism requires material abundance superior to capitalism, AND, an internally democratic political system. It can't be achieved in one or a few backward countries, as many believed.
The USSR, for all its economic achievements, never reached these. When it collapsed, it took the socialist convictions of people like Mandel with it. Essentially, he threw out the socialist baby with the Stalinist bathwater. Scholars and activists debated this hotly.
Yet it hasn't reduced his passion for social justice at all. He's fighting just as hard as ever against injustice, but no longer proposes a systemic answer to society's problems.
Mandel's stubborn, often single-handed struggles for his beliefs resulted in many attacks on him. A certain defensiveness is reflected in the assaults he documents and the support he's garnered. Many are documented voluminously.
Personal and family relationships today are often frail. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Mandel's tender, loving description of his successful 60-year marriage, and his few eloquent words of advice on how to build stable and mutually sustaining relationships are touching and practical. I felt both awe and envy reading them.
Today when the exaltation of private and individual over social concerns is very high, and the media celebrate the "end of history". William Mandel's story shows how much one person can do toward making the world a better place for all its inhabitants.
Meet and hear William Mandel:
Saturday June 10, 7:30 PM
1777 N. Vermont, Los Feliz
(one block south of Franklin)
Sunday June 11, 2:00 PM
1313 Third Street Promenade
First Published in "CHANGE-LINKS" JUNE 2001