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

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. BETTMAN/GETTY IMAGES

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.

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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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