11 May, 2010 — MRZine-monthly Review
A longtime reader of Monthly Review, and a Marxist for all his adult life, Alexander Saxton might be one of the oldest, continuously active radicals in the United States. Born in Manhattan in 1919, he met the novelist, John Dos Passos, and the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, when he was a young man, and decided to become a writer. In World War II, he served in the Merchant Marine; later, he was an organizer for the Longshoremen’s Union in the San Francisco Bay Area. Near the height of McCarthyism, he was subpoenaed to testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to cooperate. Readers won’t find Saxton in dictionaries of American literature, but he is one of the fathers of the radical novel. He published Grand Crossing in 1943, The Great Midland in 1948, and Bright Web in the Darkness, which is about an African-American woman and a blue-collar worker, in 1958. After completing his Ph.D., he taught American history at the University of California in Los Angeles for twenty years and wrote two books about race and racism: The Indispensable Enemy and The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. I met Saxton in 2000 though our mutual friend, Tillie Olsen, the author of Tell Me a Riddle and Yonnondio. Ever since then, we have continued to write to one another and to talk about the issues of the day. Now living in Southern California, he uses email and writes on his computer, though at 91 he no longer drives a car. — Jonah Raskin
Q: You were born in 1919. What is worth remembering and preserving today from that era?
A: The American tradition of going against the grain. We need to preserve the underground stream of radical egalitarianism inherited from the Enlightenment and the Puritan Revolution. We also have to detach that tradition from the illusions of corporate liberalism and the incubus of white racism.
Q: If you look back at your life, what would you say was your favorite decade — the time when you felt most alive?
A: My favorite decade began in 1962 when, after a gap of twenty years, I returned to the study of history. That intellectual activity provided structure to my weekly routine. I was earning a living as a carpenter and active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee that was founded after the Cuban revolution.
Q: The 1960s and early 1970s were times of tremendous upheaval and protest. As a member of the Old Left, what did you learn from and appreciate about the New Left?
A: When I joined the so-called “Old Left” in the 1930s, I was actually joining a Left that was new relative to the older Left of Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood. I learned that culture and politics are inseparable. I learned that Lefts are “New” and “Old” to the extent that they generate ongoing critiques of the cultural and political establishment.
Q: You have worked with your hands and with your head. What are the joys of each of them?
A: Mental labor can be as physically exhausting as manual labor. Their joys are in extending one’s powers under stress and sometime in the reassurance of successful completions.
Q: In your lifetime what was the biggest world historical event?
A: The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Q: During your adulthood there have been nearly a dozen presidents. Who was our best president and our worst?
A: As best president: Roosevelt, although he was in many ways a disaster. For worst: Truman because he ordered bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and collaborated knowingly in launching the Cold War.
Q: The American Communist Party was a political force for much of your life. What was its greatest strength?
A: In projected socialism as an alternative to the disastrous economic and foreign policies of American capitalism.
Q: What was the CP’s biggest failure?
A: The inability to construct a working class, socialist labor party during the 1930s and 1940s. But I don’t mean to suggest — given the historical realities of that time — that such an undertaking could have succeeded.
Q: You haven’t given up on the American working class have you, despite all its flaws?
A: American labor conditions have changed enormously in my lifetime. The working class is now very different in terms of race and gender than it was in the 1930s. Capitalist exploitation is only more intense now than before. I don’t doubt that working class resistance to capitalism will continue.
Q: What is it about Marxism that appeals to you? Why do you keep going back to it?
A: Marxism is the mother lode for all critiques of capitalism. Why do I keep coming back to it? I never left it.
Q: You were a husband and a father. You had a family. When did you feel pulled most between your personal and your political life?
A: My wife and I had two children before we were thirty. There was never a time without conflicts between family and political commitments. Life without personal and political aspiration — and the tensions between them — would hardly be worth living.
Q: You wrote novels a long time ago and looked to the novel as an important literary form. How can the novel still be important today?
A: The novel claims only a brief span in human culture and may not continue to play a key role. Novels are an art form, and art forms will certainly illuminate the terrors and propagate the hopes of human consciousness.
Q: Global capitalism is again in crisis. How much longer can it go on like this?
A: Our ongoing crises of ecological burnout and proliferating weapons of mass destruction will have to be replaced by a biologically more-adaptive system, or the world will drop into a black hole, taking humanity with it.
Q: What would you say to a young activist today?
A: I would quote Gramsci: Your task is to locate that point where pessimism of the intellect coincides with optimism of the will.
Jonah Raskin has lived and worked in northern California since 1975. He is Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University and the author of several books, including The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age.