Revolution and Reform
An Interview with Lenni Brenner
by Adam Engel

March 2, 2004

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Lenni Brenner is a writer and political activist, whose books include,  51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration With the Nazis, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, and The Jews in America Today.  A contributor to numerous publications, he is currently at work on a book about the politics and ideas of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

This interview took place in December, 2003, when Howard Dean was considered the leading candidate for the Democratic Nomination.

: We're in serious crisis, environmental, economic, moral and otherwise. We donít have time for a Democrat or a Republican. Everything's "reform, reform."  How much reform? What is reform? What does reform mean?  "Hurry up and wait?"

BRENNER: All right, thereís an election, what are you going to do about that?  Reformation always seems to relate to electoral thinking rather than reforms.  In other words, a guy can be an electoral reformist and go to sit-downs, sit-ins (in American society only ultra lefts talk about shootouts) and what have you.   The real reason why thatís always a question is the failure of the revolutionaries to put together a revolutionary party that has any credibility on an electoral level. And I donít mean it just doesnít have enough votes to win, and therefore Dean or whoever wins. I donít mean merely that it wonít win, but at this junction we are actually in a decayed state where there is no revolutionary party with a strategy, either electoral or anything else. The Socialist Worker's Party (SWP) became the dominant group in the [1960s] antiwar movement, but they never provided the emotion of the movement.  They had a consistent policy of demonstrating, electoral season or no electoral season.  As long as you were willing to come out and march with them, they could care less and they based that on the reality that the beginning of the antiwar movement had no more than 400 people in the US. It was simply unreal to talk about the conversion of the antiwar movement into the revolutionary 1917 kind of thing. Then there was the question of the lesser evil. The SWP never got more than a couple of thousand votes. But the lesser evilists  were Democrats who either supported McCarthy, then McGovern.  The point Iím making is that while the demonstrations were actually organized by the SWP, Iím sure most of the people in the demonstrations were voting Democrat.  Humphrey and McGovern didnít win, and yet the antiwar movement was a success. I mean obviously the Viet Cong were fought, but without the antiwar movement the soldiers would still be there. So everybody could see it made a tremendous social change in America.  Now part of that big success was parallel to the Civil Rights movement which had an independent momentum and sometimes merged into the antiwar movement and sometimes  didnít.  Stokely Carmichael was one of the first in to the antiwar movement. Later he was told to stay away from the antiwar movement because he'd only weaken the strength of the Civil Rights movement and he decided, no, Iím a moral person, so it didnít interfere. If anything, it built up the dynamic in that the powers that be were afraid that the whole rank and file of the Civil Right  Movement would pour into the antiwar movement. Thereís a famous story in which [Nixon's Attorney General John] Mitchell is looking out the window of the White House and says "it's the Russian Revolution." 
ENGEL: So whatís that got to do with changing the system today?

BRENNER: The big error that reformists make is that movements, including major movements like the antiwar movement, are a direct challenge to the entire system. Antiwar is directly infringing on their power to function in the world and the world economy. In reality, we were a success in spite of the fact that the people thought "Nixonís gonna win and the war is gonna go on forever." But Nixon won and we didnít have the war go on forever.  One lesson I learned from that  is that what people were doing was projecting their wish to end the war.  Let's bring it  right up to now. They want to get the US out of Iraq or Afghanistan or whatever. Iraq is the main thing. People are projecting their wish onto Howard Dean in this particular case, even though you and I both know Dean is quite clear: we shouldnít have gone into the war without UN approval but now that weíre there we canít just walk away from it.

ENGEL:  Heís a doctor, he took an oath to ďdo no harm,Ē yet heís for the Death Penalty.

BRENNER: Heís a conscious Democrat.  Like Hillary Clinton. Sheís homicide on the hook.

ENGEL:  This past article, I trashed Hillary and the head of the Hillary for President campaign  called and asked if I wanted to work for them Ė for free, of course.  I mean these people are crazy.  They hear nothing, they see nothing.  I mean if a Democrat is elected the stock market will work the same, thereíll be no health care, the whole thing will work the sameÖ

BRENNER:  Well, yes and no. The system will run at any given moment.  I donít know what they are projecting at the moment in the way of health care. You have to see itís really divided into two parties and essentially the difference between the two is that the Republicans have a hard class line and the Democrats are saying "this isnít the middle ages, you have to give the peasants something. Otherwise they will revolt against the whole system." In other words, they're "doing good" for malicious reasons. But also itís important to realize that you could be very rich, very capitalist, and still be in favor of a number of reforms on their own merits because you went to school and you had Professor Jones and he convinced you way back fifty years ago that you are in favor of gay rights, no matter what else is going on in the same party. The way I put it is there are people who look at the world and say oh my God itís horrible the world is horrible, nothing can be changed therefore do nothing. And then there are people who do evil in order to do good and then do good in order to do evil. These are different people, but they exist in the same party, the Democratic party. What I observed is that we live in an age of political consultants. They literally do polls, very carefully analyze the numbers, then tell the candidate, "Youíre running and your taking this position, and you already have this number of Catholic idiots and this number of black idiots, this number of Jewish idiots and if you put this formula together you will win by this number percent etc.  Essentially, what this is is high tech demagogy.  I might also share their view that x number of Jewish idiots believe this and y number of Catholic idiots believe that, but my attitude is that you can either pander to them or try to win them over. And this difference is enormous. In other words, it means telling people who donít want to hear what you have to say, what you have to say.

ENGEL: The Democratic party, in my opinion, stops  people who want actual  change from creating some sort of movement. They act as a buffer between those who want the status quo and those who want real change.

BRENNER: Yes, you have to start out with two types of things. After the Vietnam war the SWP developed into a weird, bizarre sect and barely had any impact on the left or the antiwar movement, and as far as the general public was concerned they barely even heard of it. Several groups of people claimed to be true Trotskyists and left it. Theyíve never set up an electoral party like the SWP, but they were for many years the dominant element in the antiwar movement. I donít know what else is close. In other words if you could get the trade union bureaucrats to oppose American intervention in Nicaragua, okay, they would demonstrate with them and they could get them to demonstrate against Apartheid, but they couldnít say anything about the Middle East. The bureaucrats were either individually pro-Zionist or tied into the pro-Zionist organizations. A.N.S.W.E.R. doesn't really have a politics that is really quite credible. What they wound up doing: they became very pro-Saddam Hussein for a while, then they became a little distant from him. Their basic attitude was those are the people who made the revolution. What Iím getting at is that one of the major things in dealing with the reality of reformism is that I can not say right now, vote for these guys right here, because most of these groups are so insignificant. Like the SWP may be on the ballot in a couple of states, Workers World will be on the ballot, but they're not really talking to the people. Then they have all that Mumia  crapola.  I believe Mumia is guilty.

ENGEL:  I believe that he should be set free because of a mistrial. But to say "he's guilty" without a trial is wrong, just as saying ďheísĒ innocent without a trial is wrong. Heíll never get a fair trial in the U.S. so he should be set free, but without a trial it is impossible to say whether heís actually innocent or guilty.

BRENNER:  I  believe heís guilty for two reasons.  One is they have this affidavit of one guy who says he himself did it, not Mumia.  Itís not real. Not a word of truth in it. It would be outrageous for a judge to even entertain it.  My own view is that they invented this to please themselves and their rank and file.  They got this guy to say, I committed murder because they know that since the feds already got the guy that did it, they donít want to hear this thing, they donít want to be bothered prosecuting this guy for perjury etc., because all they want to do is keep the focus on Mumia.

The other reason that I think he did it, is that if your lawyers present a bogus affidavit one has a tendency to look at it suspiciously.  Even beyond that, I had a friend named P. Benjamin, who used to be a black columnist for the Daily News. The News sent him down to Philadelphia after the Move bombing. What he came back with, very honest guy, is that the guys who were bombed, literally bombed by the black mayor, said they wanted to get paid compensation for the bombing, but the Mayor did the right thing. I mean these were lunatics out there, all right, and they would have loud speaker lectures in the middle of the night, that kind of thing. What Iím saying is that the people who were bombed, the people who were immediately around Move, said of course we want to get paid for the bombing, but these guys were lunatics, [the Mayor] did the right thing, he had to get rid of these guys one way or another.  What these pro-Mumia leftists donít understand is, yes, way back Mumia was a Panther, which meant nothing because the Panthers included anybody and everybody, but he later became a Move person,  so  who knows what was running through his head when he saw his brother getting a ticket in the middle of the night?  But understand, itís just his brother getting a ticket in the middle of the night. This is not the Capitalist Brass after Mumia.  Itís Mumia projecting etc., etc.  Look, Iíve been in prison, I know cops, I know robbers so to speak. The fact that the cop was shooting at Mumia kind of makes me think that Mumia was shooting at him.  If you follow what I mean.  Now, understand, there have been any number of cases in the past that were similar, where the left was all behind. Joe Hill. The story behind this was that a store was  robbed and Joe Hill got arrested for it. He came in with bullet wounds, etc. ďNo, I didnít get the bullet wounds from the thingÖĒ you know, the shootout. ďNo I was with a woman and her husband shot me.  And no I wonít tell you who the woman is because some things are sacred.Ē  You know, you hear that sort of thing today and you think, "Get out of here!" Someone is not going to tell who the husband is when his life is at stake?!  

ENGEL: Yeah, well, thatís your opinion of the case.  Letís get back to the Democrats.

BRENNER:  This kind of hope for the Democrats as the lesser of two evils is that people donít see a real thing on the ballot that they can vote for.  The opposite is true for the Greens.  The Greens are actually quite popular, okay, and the barking and screaming about how Nader lost the election (the NYT kept denouncing Nader that way), that has only become a retrospective thing. In other words, he did in a certain perspective lose the election for Gore, but no one at that time thought that the election was going to be so close that Nader was going to be a decisive character.

ENGEL: My answer to people who say that is "Yeah, I voted with Nader, but I should have voted with my conscience and voted Bush."  People assume that if you didnít vote for Nader that you would have voted Democrat.  What if I wouldnít have voted at all?  What if I was going to vote for Bush?

BRENNER:  In other words the givens are the Republicans have a long history of fighting things on a million questions so therefore, itís either not voting, voting for the Democrats or voting for a third party, a revolutionary party.  Nader is not a revolutionary.

ENGEL:  No, heís a reformist.

BRENNER:  Now, by the way, this again goes into one of the problems of reformism.  Nader is such a reformist that even though he ran, he wasnít a member of the Green Party and afterwards he told people to vote for Wellstone, when he was still alive, against the Green Party.  Now, Wellstone, at that time had already voted for the Patriot Act, okay.

ENGEL:  Thatís right?  He voted for the Patriot Act?

BRENNER:  He did.  And he was one of the 99 Senators to denounce the ďUnder GodĒ thing in the pledge. One of the reasons I focus on that is I went to a rally sponsored by USLAW and the Nation and a whole bunch of these people were having  "in memory of Wellstone" rallies.  They donít give a shit, man, who the Democrats put up. It could be Adolf Hitler, and they'd support  him as the "lesser of two evils." The whole mentality is based on a series of fantastic assumptions.  Number one, Dean is a peace candidate who never organized a peace demonstration. That tells you something.  Secondly, they never organized a peace demonstration.  Now Iím not talking about rank and file young kids who didnít have time to organize something, but on the intellectual level. Chomsky . . . heís talking to millions, heís given a million lectures, written books, etc., but heís never organized a peace demonstration to my knowledge.  You know, been a part of the actual planning, etc. One of the reasons I became a writer was I was sick and tired of organizing demonstrations for writers. I was just as smart as them, except that I was doing all the work.  What youíve got is a kind of Freudian projection: a college kid is opposed to the war and he hears Dean, so heís for Dean. Heís not organizing a demo, and Deanís not organizing the demo. If youíre organizing the demo, you have a chance to learn about this kind of reality, of this kind of mound of crap.  Donít misunderstand me, many of the people in the Vietnam War who organized demos were Democrats. But the vast majority were not Democrats, so it has a quality, as I say, of projecting and not really looking at what theyíre going to do. You want them to do what you want them to do rather than what they want to do. So one big objection is, letís say youíre for Dean and youíre going to put all your energy into Dean, what happens if he loses?  Like right now heís behind. I mean at this point Bush is ahead of him in the polls, okay?

ENGEL:  Right.

BRENNER:  What happens if he loses?  It means you put all that energy into Dean and got nothing out of it.  You still get Bush, youíre not organizing demonstrations, youíre not educating anybody because Dean is not educating anybody.

ENGEL:  What if he wins?

BRENNER:  No, I was saying, in other words, steps that you have to go through if you are looking at it logically. In other words, someone comes  to me with the idea to vote for Dean.  I say, what if he loses, what if he wins.  A lot of these young kids, they want him to win; therefore, losing is not an option in their minds.  The consequences of them doing this and him losing is not a Ö.it doesnít really cross their minds. You would think itís elementary, and it should, but it doesnít.  They con themselves into thinking heís going to win.  Now bear in mind that thatís true up and down the line.  In other words, there are people who are for Kucinich. It would be an act of God if he were to win. He doesnít even rank in the polls at this point.  

A friend of mine, who goes to a Saturday pro-Palestinian demonstration in Union Square,  says a lot of the people there are Kucinich supporters.  Now, itís not real.  Kucinich canít win, they're wasting their time.  Everything they say against voting for a third party candidate is true of Kucinich, of wasting your time on himÖit doesnít go anywhere and it doesnít help anything.  What youíve got is a lot of projections.  Now youíve got to distinguish between the projection of the young and innocent who are well-intentioned. We want to reach them, the young college ďDean People,Ē  theyíre our college audience, our first audience.  And then youíve got the decadents.  I mean people like The Nation. They supported every Democratic candidate since 1946. They are passionate, but they are burned out people who still in their minds see themselves as leftists or liberals, but by any objective standard are not. I meanóIím just giving you an illustration Ė I was going to give a talk up at Fordham with an Iranian professor. So what I did was I contacted [Nation editor] Victor [Navasky] to ask information. What I said was, "Look, Victor, in 1980 when Carter brought the Shah here, you supported Carter for President, after he brought the Shah here Ė whatís your present evaluation of what you did then."  He gave me an answer: "I still would do it Ė Better Carter than Reagan."  So what it boils down to: 20 years later he still thinks he did the right thing by voting for the guy and telling people to vote for the guy who was an accessory to all the crimes of the Shah.

ENGEL:  Not to mention Afghanistan, NicaraguaÖ

BRENNER:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, and I threw that in tooÖbut what Iím getting at is that he probably didnít know at that time about the Afghanistan thing because that was covert, but the Shah of Iran was front page, every day during the campaign, that he brought the Shah here and we know why.  Books have been written, I mean, books by State Department people have been written, because their attitude was if you donít back the Shah in his hour of desperation, then all your other despots would say, "Youíre not going to back me in my hour of desperation. Does it pay  to be allied to you and get overthrown, cause Iím going to be left to hang?"  You have to distinguish between the two elements of reformism in this particular case. You have well intended young kids who donít know any better, and  the older ones who basically do. Theyíre the enemy, and in fact I would go so far as to say this, that one of the ways of convincing the young of the error of their ways is to show the sordid record of the oldÖin other words, all these guys who backed failed movements and whatnot and they're doing this and its obviouslyÖ

ENGEL:  Well, Hillary Clinton was once one of those ďwell-intendedĒ college  students, as was Bill.

BRENNER:  Yeah, but what Iím trying to get at is that the one thing that the SWP did in the Vietnam war period that was right was they said, "Look, in theory youíre only supposed to unite working class tendencies, capitalism, socialism, you know, unite working classes. Given the facts that all of the left wing movements were so obviously insignificant, you have to work with Democrats, otherwise you would have no rank and file, no numbers, and couldnít effect anything."  I have no objection to that. For example, one good rule for any movement is not to have any candidates on your docket, otherwise you are just giving them a platform. Letís say Dean becomes the guy.  I have no problem with Kucinich being that guy or Sharpton being that guy, because he doesnít build demonstrations, but he does go to them (now understand I donít believe he draws Blacks to the demos).  Iím sure you have been to Washington demos -- you will notice that there is a very light turnout of blacks. Thatís in a city were there is a majority of blacks. More blacks turn out in New York City, with or without Sharpton, than turn out in Washington, and blacks are only 16% of the population here in NY.  Most of the blacks who show up to Washington Demos are people from other cities.  But nevertheless, you canít appear as a set candidate. In other words you canít have only those who are prepared for the overthrow of capitalism  lead a demo against the war.  Thatís putting the cart before the horse. What weíre trying to do is convince people who are opposed to the war to demonstrate against the war and to actively win over other people.  So it all boils down, again: to build a movement requires conversion.  I use the analogy of the Catholic Church. They went out into the forests and converted the barbarians, and they didnít just pander to the paganism of the barbarians if you follow me.  Thatís the thing that people donít realize.  The young kids donít realize it essentially because you can pick up your politics and your other values from the society around you and I mean literally, most specifically from your family and the schools, the church, a number of institutions in any society that create the values of any ordinary person, of the rich, of the poor. Obviously, the schools are different from the churches, but those are the things.  The major thing about American politics that makes it different from virtually all European politics is that, there, you do have ideological parties, right wing, left wing. Here, what youíve got is a kind of hard player politics. In other words, "Iím a liberal and Iíve got four cards. Iíll give you this and you give me this." Itís all compromise at best, and wheeling and dealing at worst.  Literally, compromise from getting selected to election. You have to realize, wait a minute, thereís a strategy for getting there and, more than that, things have a history. In other words, Dean as an individual has a history, the Democratic party as an institution has a history. Those are the things that determine your attitude towards them, not your wish that you want the war to end so therefore heís your man.

Adam Engel can be reached at bartleby.samsa@verizon.net. He owes a great debt to Lisa Fusco, without whose typing skills this taped interview might never have seen daylight.

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