Staughton Lynd Is Building a New World in the Basement of the Old

The longtime lawyer and advocate on steel, SNCC and carving spaces beyond capitalism.

Moshe Z. Marvit March 20, 2017

Staughton Lynd, second from right, shown here in a 1965 file photo after he was splashed with red paint at a peace march in Washington, D.C., taught history at Yale while a leader of the anti-war movement.

Short­ly after Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, I trav­eled to Niles, Ohio, a small, strug­gling city on the out­skirts of Youngstown, part of what’s known as Steel Val­ley — though the indus­try has been on decline for decades. The sto­ry of America’s steel mill clo­sures, start­ing in the 1970s, is well known. Less known is the way that work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties in Youngstown, and lat­er Pitts­burgh, fought to keep the mills open — and almost succeeded.

I remember sitting in this basement with Marvin Weinstock, former candidate for United Steelworkers vice president, and Ed Mann, a president of one of the most effective local unions. I asked them, “What about this idea of worker community ownership?”

Led by area min­is­ters, unions, com­mu­ni­ty groups, and pro­fes­sor-turned­lawyer Staughton Lynd, work­ers devel­oped a plan to take con­trol of the Camp­bell Works plant, mod­ern­ize it, and work it as a coop­er­a­tive, apt­ly named Com­mu­ni­ty Steel. They raised mil­lions of dol­lars and devel­oped a work­able busi­ness mod­el that required almost $250 mil­lion in fed­er­al loan guar­an­tees — a large sum, but with­in the government’s bud­get. A whole region’s des­tiny hung in the bal­ance. At the last minute, the Carter admin­is­tra­tion, with the president’s bless­ing, had a change of heart and turned down the loan guarantees.

Lynd still lives in Niles, and it was him I went to vis­it. I met with him in his base­ment — because all impor­tant busi­ness in Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio takes places in base­ments — to get his take on the cur­rent polit­i­cal moment. Lynd has fought many bat­tles that pit­ted the seem­ing­ly pow­er­less against the pow­er­ful, and while he’s seen some vic­to­ries, he is no stranger to defeats.

Before the Youngstown steel bat­tle, he served as a leader of the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee (SNCC) and as the direc­tor of Mis­sis­sip­pi Free­dom Schools, and was involved in the anti-Viet­nam War move­ment (which cost him his posi­tion at Yale). In recent decades, Lynd and his wife, Alice, have worked as attor­neys rep­re­sent­ing pris­on­ers. At 87, he is prepar­ing to fight again.

Every­one is call­ing what’s hap­pen­ing now unprece­dent­ed. Do you see any precedents?

It’s not the same kind of sit­u­a­tion that exist­ed in Ger­many in the ear­ly 1930s. But, hav­ing lived in Youngstown since 1976, before the first major mill clos­ing, does give one a sense of two things. First, that steel work­ers feel ner­vous about their pen­sions — which are promised ben­e­fits that were deferred. And sec­ond, they are con­cerned for their chil­dren. In a com­mu­ni­ty like this, you count­ed on the fact that a young man would grad­u­ate high school, go into the mil­i­tary, come out of the mil­i­tary, and his uncle would get him a job in the mill. That made it pos­si­ble for dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of a fam­i­ly to live near one anoth­er. A retired steel­work­er would tell you, We’re togeth­er as a fam­i­ly two or three evenings a week.” When we delib­er­ate­ly per­mit­ted cor­po­ra­tions to ship man­u­fac­tur­ing to oth­er coun­tries where labor was cheap­er, that dis­rupt­ed not only fam­i­ly bud­gets, but fam­i­ly cul­ture. And that is where the psy­cho­log­i­cal back­ground that gives rise to fas­cism resem­bles what hap­pened in Ger­many and Italy.

What lessons did you learn from your bat­tle against the steel mill clo­sures in Youngstown that apply to our cur­rent polit­i­cal moment?

I remem­ber sit­ting in this base­ment with Mar­vin Wein­stock, for­mer can­di­date for Unit­ed Steel­work­ers vice pres­i­dent, and Ed Mann, a pres­i­dent of one of the most effec­tive local unions. I asked them, What about this idea of work­er com­mu­ni­ty own­er­ship?” His­tor­i­cal­ly, of course, the Left has tend­ed to dis­par­age it as a pet­ty bour­geois false illusion.

The reac­tion of those men was, Do it. Try it. See if you can bring it off.” That was enough for me and we came close to bring­ing it off.

The best thing about that effort was some­thing akin to what Trump brings to some issues — a very sim­ple appeal to one of a worker’s strongest feel­ings: We know how to make steel. The mill runs far bet­ter on the night­shift when the fore­men aren’t around. It’s very pow­er­ful to be able to say to a per­son who’s been absolute­ly humil­i­at­ed, dis­card­ed, made to feel of no worth, You could do it. Boy do we need a roller like your­self with all your years of expe­ri­ence.” I still remem­ber, for instance, a work­er at a clos­ing mill who came up to me and said, Now, write this down. Here’s my name and the thing that I was very good at — the job that I did— was such and such. Don’t lose that.”

Of course, Trump has also been very good at chan­nel­ing the sense of loss that many peo­ple are feel­ing into racial ani­mus. How can we overcome?

The solu­tion to racial seg­re­ga­tion begins in hous­ing deseg­re­ga­tion. Peo­ple don’t live togeth­er. They’re not neigh­bors. How can you expect love or friend­ship or tol­er­ance toward some­one you don’t real­ly know?

The best thing Howard Zinn wrote was not A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States but rather The South­ern Mys­tique, in which he said, essen­tial­ly, It’s not that big a prob­lem. You put peo­ple in a work­ing sit­u­a­tion where they have the same sta­tus, not just in the same space, but the same sta­tus, and leave them there a while; they’ll get on.”

You’ve said you are opposed to the word orga­niz­ing.” Why is that?

I have been in the pres­ence of many won­der­ful, not just effec­tive, but won­der­ful orga­niz­ers. Espe­cial­ly the SNCC peo­ple like Bob Moses. But also Viet­nam draft resisters.

But if we’re hon­est, in the New Left of the 1960s orga­niz­ing” was a term used by a mid­dle class per­son talk­ing about peo­ple who were not mid­dle class. The Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety (SDS), includ­ing the late Tom Hay­den, gave up their stu­dent sta­tus to go live in the ghet­to with peo­ple of a sort they had nev­er asso­ci­at­ed with, but they were going to orga­nize them.

The idea of orga­niz­ing is, I’m the orga­niz­er, I know what you should be think­ing and what you should be doing, so I will sur­round you with lit­er­a­ture, cir­cum­stances, com­rades, so that you will come to think and act in those ways that I have pre­de­ter­mined to be good.”

That can be very coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and very arro­gant, espe­cial­ly in times like these, when nobody real­ly expect­ed what hap­pened and nobody has thought through — or, more impor­tant­ly, expe­ri­enced — an effec­tive man­ner of resistance.

Alice and I have come to pre­fer the term accom­pa­ny.” We first bumped into the word in Latin Amer­i­ca, where it was asso­ci­at­ed with Óscar Romero. Romero came from a poor fam­i­ly. He was in quite a dif­fer­ent posi­tion than the SDS stu­dents. He had this won­der­ful anal­o­gy, It’s like start­ing a fire. If you have some sticks that are already part­ly burned through, that have been exposed to the heat already, they’re going to catch more rapid­ly than if you’re begin­ning with new branch­es that still may be some­what green.”

For peo­ple who are in the same sit­u­a­tion as those with whom they are act­ing polit­i­cal­ly, accom­pa­ni­ment is nat­ur­al: I grew up poor and you grew up poor, broth­er, and you know what I’m talk­ing about.”

Orga­niz­ing is a more con­trived process. This mid­dle-class per­son needs, in a very self-con­scious way, to grap­ple with, How am I going to relate to this oth­er per­son? I haven’t lived as he has.” It wasn’t like that for Romero — or, for that mat­ter, Bob Moses. He grew up in Harlem, he knew exact­ly what Mis­sis­sip­pi share­crop­pers were talk­ing about.

So how does some­one who grew up in a mid­dle-class house­hold and has a col­lege edu­ca­tion do this sort of work? Or do they?

They have to. There has to be a path to it. In my case, many stu­dents in the 1960s thought that their obvi­ous next step as com­mit­ted rad­i­cals was to become a work­er, to get an indus­tri­al job. But most didn’t do it suc­cess­ful­ly. If I had become a steel­work­er, I don’t know how many peo­ple I would have acci­den­tal­ly killed.

So I decid­ed, the way I can make a con­tri­bu­tion is by mak­ing use of that which I am. I have uni­ver­si­ty degrees com­ing out my ears; I’ll try to help peo­ple using that. I’m so hap­py with hav­ing found that way to accom­pa­ny peo­ple. My expe­ri­ence was that, at least in Youngstown, work­ing-class peo­ple are pret­ty picky about strangers, like: Who is this guy, where did you get him, he dress­es fun­ny, I’ve nev­er seen him before.” But if the answer is, He’s our lawyer,” well then, Oh yeah, okay, bring him on in.” At some point the steel­work­ers union made a point of say­ing, Did you know this guy wrote a book about social­ism? Did you know this guy went to Hanoi in the mid­dle of the Viet­nam War?” And the response was, Who the hell cares? He’s in court for us. You should have heard him talk­ing yesterday.”

What should polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion look like right now? Peo­ple want to learn to resist — do we need some­thing like SNCC’s Free­dom Schools?

Clear­ly, the move­ment suf­fers from being com­part­men­tal­ized and sub­di­vid­ed. And so the ques­tion is, what form of edu­ca­tion can con­tribute to a lib­er­a­tion move­ment rather than lead­ing indi­vid­u­als into per­son­al escape routes?

The Free­dom Schools suf­fered from a more gen­er­al fail­ing in SNCC. Nobody likes to crit­i­cize SNCC and so there hasn’t been an ade­quate dis­cus­sion, in my view, of why SNCC dis­in­te­grat­ed so rapid­ly after the sum­mer of 1964. Our approach was to urge kids not to take the next bus to Chica­go, but to try to find a way to hold their ground where they grew up in Mis­sis­sip­pi. Noth­ing wrong with that in the abstract. But we did not give suf­fi­cient atten­tion to the mechan­i­cal cot­ton pick­er, which was destroy­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a liveli­hood that so many African Amer­i­cans in Mis­sis­sip­pi relied on. SNCC and the civ­il rights move­ment need­ed an equiv­a­lent to the post-Civ­il War slo­gan of forty acres and a mule.” We didn’t have it. I remem­ber advo­cat­ing at the time and I was told, You want us to have an ide­ol­o­gy.” And I thought about it for 50 years and I guess my response is, That’s right!”

So is an ide­ol­o­gy what we need?

No. Let me make a dif­fer­ent point. I gave myself a rad­i­cal edu­ca­tion on the sub­way going to school. I read a book by James Burn­ham called The Man­age­r­i­al Rev­o­lu­tion. It wasn’t much of a book — he was an ex-Trot­sky­ist, hur­ry­ing back to right-wing pol­i­tics — but he said, more or less, There’s not going to be a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. Here’s why: In feu­dal soci­ety, it was bru­tal, but it was dis­ar­tic­u­lat­ed. There were spaces where you could do new things — free cities, arti­sanal guilds, banks, cap­i­tal­ist enter­pris­es. After you had done all that and peo­ple had expe­ri­enced this new soci­ety, then you killed the king. But that was not until the end, after you real­ly had made a new soci­ety with­in the old.”

Social­ists have no oppor­tu­ni­ty to do that. Marx thought up to a point that trade unions were going to be the new soci­ety with­in the shell of the old. But that’s not what trade unions are. They are defen­sive orga­ni­za­tions. They do their jobs when they keep the bru­tal­i­ties of cap­i­tal­ism from exceed­ing a cer­tain point.

Every­thing I’ve expe­ri­enced has con­firmed Burnham’s analy­sis. It’s nice to think of the tran­si­tion to social­ism as anal­o­gous to the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism, but, in fact, the cir­cum­stances are quite dif­fer­ent. Many a left­ist has said, We’ve got this book, we’ve got these leaflets, they’ll spread.” No! That’s not how peo­ple learn. Peo­ple learn through expe­ri­ence. You have to be the per­son who is an arti­san from 9 to 1 and a farmer from 2 to 6. You have to be a per­son who prac­tices sol­i­dar­i­ty rather than get­ting all worked up about a two-cent dif­fer­en­tial on the mid­night shift. To put it in a phrase: You have to expe­ri­ence social­ism in order to be a social­ist. And our soci­ety pro­vides very lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty for that.

I’ve expe­ri­enced it for a peri­od of time, but not per­ma­nent­ly — whether it was the move­ment of the 60s, a band of broth­ers and sis­ters stand­ing in a cir­cle of love, or the Work­ers Sol­i­dar­i­ty Club of Youngstown, where peo­ple real­ly would get on oth­er people’s pick­et lines and bring wood.

Now we gath­er in our base­ment, and peo­ple bring food and car­ry chairs and do dish­es. This is the clos­est I know how to come to liv­ing in the kind of soci­ety I want to live in.

Moshe Z. Mar­vit is an attor­ney and fel­low with The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion and the co-author (with Richard Kahlen­berg) of the book Why Labor Orga­niz­ing Should be a Civ­il Right.

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