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Marxism Is the Mother Lode for all Critiques of Capitalism: An 
Interview with Alexander Saxton
by Jonah Raskin

     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.

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