Learning from the Sixties: A Talk with John Maher

Photo By A peace sign is held up during an anti-war rally at the Occupy Boston encampment in Boston, USA. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyde

A new book, Learning From The Sixties: Memoir Of An Organizer, is intended to pass on the lessons learned along the way by anti-Vietnam War activist and political organizer John Maher, a longtime Cambridge resident, to a new generation.

In the book, Maher describes his journey from student activist, a leader of the New Left, and a champion of working-class concerns to his work developing the grassroots network Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts. Over time he amassed a 2,000-page FBI file and a place on the FBI’s list of the top 40 leaders of “the opposition.”

Spare Change News caught up with Maher to talk about his decades as a political activist and his thoughts about the unfolding Occupy movement. Excerpts of the interview follow.

SCN: You’ve always said that you wanted this to be a book that young people might learn from and benefit from.

JM: There were many different lessons, and I wrote it as a memoir because I think the reader has to see sort of who they’re dealing with. I would say the primary lesson, which is one I learned maybe two decades ago, is that we’re not going to have any permanent, beneficial change in the United States unless working class and low-income people are part of the political process. (For example), how are you going to get health care reform if the people who benefit most from it are not involved in the process?

I think the other thing that I learned from the very beginning, but have to keep relearning, is that if you want to build a political movement, you have to really get out there and talk to people. You’ve got to listen to them and you’ve got to try to figure out where they’re at. So that’s a second really important lesson.

And you have to have some sort of overall political strategy that speaks not only to the overall situation of the country, but speaks to the particular niche your organization is going to fill. In other words, one organization can’t be the movement. It takes contributions from many, many different sectors, many different kinds of people, many different organizations, but I think you’re more successful if everybody understands what is the particular niche they are trying to fill.

Like, for example, Neighbor to Neighbor’s niche is getting low-income people involved in the political process, I would say particularly in the ring of cities outside of Boston. That’s the thing that we do, and then we do a lot in coalitions, which is very important. But it’s all based on having this focus — what do we bring to the table? We bring to the table the fact that Neighbor to Neighbor is an organization led by low-income people.

I guess that’s another lesson that I think is extremely important. People have got to lead their own organizations. If you saw from my memoir, I’m a Harvard graduate, blah blah blah, studied this, studied that, and I hope I’ve made a contribution, but I can’t lead a working class organization, the working class people who are involved in the organization have got to lead it. So I have to have a conception of myself that says that I’m a servant of the process, but I’m never going be the big decision-maker. Unless we play by that rule, we’ll never have a vibrant working class-led organization. The people in it will be deferring to the allegedly smart Harvard guy, and the people who don’t agree with him won’t participate, they’ll say, ‘What am I doing here?’

These are some of the lessons I think I learned over the years that I try to convey. I try to get into the book how you actually do some of these things, like, what does a door knock look like? And I give a couple of examples just so you can see what it feels like, what you have to bring to somebody if you’re going to knock on their door and ask them to do something. You have to be prepared for the fact that, first, they’re totally amazed that you turned up there. And you have to have a way of addressing what they would see as the obstacles to their participation – like, well, I’m not a voter, so you have to bring a voter registration form; I haven’t got a telephone, so you have to bring a cell.

The virtue of writing a book is that somebody can read it on their own time and in their own way, and take from it what appears particularly useful. I have to say, in relationship to the current Occupy Boston situation, that several people put a lot of pressure on me and said, ‘Well, what is the advice you have to these young people, what are you going to tell them to do?,’ and I just say, that is really the wrong way to look at it. One of the things I talk about it in the book is how it was extremely annoying to have older intellectuals who were not really involved in the struggle give me a public lecture about all of the things that the student movement at the time was doing wrong. I’m sitting there thinking you’re sitting on your big fat behind in your office every day, and I’m trying to build a movement, who do you think you are? So I think advice from Mount Olympus is not really useful.

Looking at my own experience, one of the great deficiencies that we started out with in the ’60s is that the previous generation of organizers had been eliminated and demoralized by the McCarthy era. There was this tremendous gap, there was a missing generation of grassroots organizers. The Communist party had done a lot of it in the ‘30s and then after the war, along came the Cold War, it was partly a question of repression and it was partly a question of their extremely unfortunate allegiance to the Soviet Union, which discredited … It was hard to take seriously somebody who thought that the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party was really the repository of all good thinking. So we then had to sort of figure it out as we went along, and some of it was pretty shaky.

But from that, what I get in relation to Occupy Boston or Occupy Wall Street, is that first, what older outsiders can do is participate, they can offer various skills and trainings and stuff for people to chose among. We were very short on training because we were very short of trainers, because that generation was missing. But I think you have to really respect and work with the choice of the people on the ground as to what they are going to emphasize, and you have to start by recognizing that they stepped into a tremendous gap by taking the action they did, by taking a stand. You know, there are tens of millions of people sitting around mad, and you know there are hundreds of thousands of people like myself sitting around thinking when is the (crap) going to hit the fan, when is something going to happen? These people made it happen, so let’s start with that, nobody was doing anything like what they are doing now, so we have to start with the tremendous accomplishment. And then I think established organizations like the unions or organizations like Neighbor to Neighbor have to start thinking how can we support that, how can we help build on that?

SCN: Has that happened yet?

JM: I think that there have been a lot of trainings, which is a good thing. I think the AFL-CIO and other unions have publicly endorsed the effort, which I think is really important. One of the really unfortunate things about the 1960s is there was a split between construction workers and student anti-war demonstrators, most notably in New York City there were these huge brawls where these construction workers would attack anti-war demonstrators. In the ‘60s, I spent a lot of time knocking on doors of working class neighborhoods talking about the war, so it wasn’t as if all workers were pro-war. In fact, to the contrary, as Chomsky points out again and again, working-class people were much less likely to favor the war than middle class and upper middle class people, but the unions were controlled by people who were very much pro-war and bought into the whole Cold War ideology.

So I think the fact that the unions have gotten behind this is good, in principal. Then what the unions have got to do is to figure out how to help build it in a serious way. We’re in a situation where most of the working class in the United States, which is most of the population, needs a union, but really less than 10 percent of the private sector workers are actually in a union. All these people who work in insurance companies, stuff like that. Unions are not just for white guys in hard hats, unions are for everybody who works for a living, and I think this is an opportunity for unions to try to figure out how can they incorporate all of these people, particularly young people who are unemployed or marginally employed, who are facing a very grim future. How can they work with a union, how can they become part of a union? I think that’s really a central question both for the demonstrators and for the established unions.

SCN: You point out where union membership is now as opposed to where it used to be. Do you think there is still potential for growth for unions?

JM: I think so, absolutely, there has to be. The progressive movement cannot begin to fulfill its objectives without building a much stronger labor movement. The labor movement is so intrinsic to the progressive movement, and not only on the job providing a counterweight to the owners, but traditionally in the United States, unions were crucial in getting out the working class vote. One reason why the working class vote has declined so much is because the union movement has declined. There were obviously weaknesses in the union movement, which, combined with tremendous pressure from the right wing, led to the decline in unions. Like, some unions had a racist attitude toward the workforce, they really thought of themselves as the white guy union, not thinking that unions were for all workers. In the earlier days – this is no longer the case – unions thought their responsibility was not towards the entire working class, but towards the dues-paying members of their particular union. So they would fight for health care benefits for whatever union it was and ignore the need really to have a national health care system that protected all working people. I think that was a major strategic error in the ‘40s and ‘50s by the union movement.

SCN: The Occupy demonstrators have been criticized as not having specific goals, and as of yet there hasn’t been a modern-day equivalent of a Port Huron statement or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Do you think they need to get more specific about what they want?

JM: I imagine that they will. But it is so early into the process. Take the Port Huron statement. The Student League for Industrial Democracy antedated the Port Huron statement by two or three years. So it’s not as if they had a meeting, and they came together for 48 hours, and Tom Hayden sat down and wrote the Port Huron statement out of nothing. They had been kicking this stuff around for several years, and it takes time to really consolidate things and think things through.

SCN: So far we haven’t had many politicians aligning themselves with the Occupy movement, in the way politicians on the right aligned themselves with the Tea Party and leveraged that movement for political gain.

JM: My impression is that the Obama administration has sort of blessed it a little bit. But my feeling in general about the current political situation is that progressives, and the progressive movement, have got to stake out very clearly and very publicly what they stand for. Because the Obama administration is not doing nearly enough for working people to get out the vote. There was a tremendous decline in low-income working class participation in 2010, and we could have the same thing in 2012. Progressives have really got to get out there and talk about affirmatively what they are proposing, and how that’s different from what the Republicans are proposing, and how that’s different from what the Obama administration is proposing.

And to the credit of the Congressional Black Caucus, they came out with a document nine or 12 months ago, an alternative budget which is really interesting. Because it invests in America, it has moderately sized tax increases on rich people, and it invests in America, in American job creation. This question of investing in America, in education and infrastructure, is absolutely critical. Otherwise I think the thrust of the current policies are for America to become a poor, low-wage country with huge unemployment, a disproportionately large number of people in prison, I think the racist inequalities which are very prevalent will continue and get worse, by that I mean the disproportionately high unemployment in African-American and other minority communities, the disproportionately high incarceration rates, the two-tiered school system that we see coming down the pike.

SCN: You express some disappointment in President Obama.

JM: Absolutely …. He was really talking about a new deal for low-income people, and he has not delivered, not come close to delivering. The Republicans are terrible, no question about it. Some of these people, you just wonder … the gates to the loony bin somehow were opened and you have these characters running all over the place, and they are a terrible obstacle in Congress. But there are things from the very beginning, which the Obama administration could have done on its own initiative, that would have made a tremendous difference, and they didn’t do it.

For more about John Maher’s book, “Learning from the Sixties: Memoirs of an Organizer,” see http://learningfromthesixties.com/

TOM BENNER is editor of Spare Change News.


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