Bill Pelz, the Passing of a Comrade & Friend

by Mark A. Lause, North Star Editorial Board on February 16, 2018


Everybody who knew Bill Pelz will miss him and cherish our memories of the time we passed in his company. At one point, Bill and I found ourselves stranded in London after a conference. After a morning at the British museum, we embarked on a walk through Bloomsbury in the footsteps of old Karl and his contemporaries. Our combined bookstore-pub crawl carried us into that seasonally early gray dusk which brought on a noticeable chill and the start of a definite misting. We fortified ourselves with an excellent Indian dinner but it had been such a good day that we both decided to drag it out. By then, that misting had turned into an unavoidable drizzle. After a few stops, the pubs had filled up and become too noisy, so we parked ourselves outside, with our hoods up, even as the that winter drizzle graduated into a light but rather persuasive shower.

But the weather didn’t phase us. We continued to enjoy our drinks and continued to chatter about history, the movement, old friends and new projects. From the inside, we probably looked like two old men not knowing enough to come in out of the rain. But we had an early plane out the next day, and we didn’t want the day to end.

That night, as I sloshed back to my hotel, I amused myself with the thought that, had we had known in our 20s where we’d have wound up in our mid-60s, we’d have just been tickled pink.

For years, our fates had been bound together in all sorts of ways. As someone who’s spent much of his life trying to understand radicals in the past, I have been somewhat surprised to learn the obvious fact that Bill’s passing has also been a passing into history and its scrutiny, which can’t be separated from our particular kinship and, in a larger sense, an impending assessment of our generation.

We came up during a full scale war waged on a very small country. The master class said that if they didn’t win, western civilization would be overwhelmed by those sneaky expansionist barbarian hordes crawling up the beaches of Hawaii and California. They had also been telling us the same thing about Americans of color, who were placing growing demands on upon them.

We came to realize that our lords and masters lied when it thought it necessary to get something they wanted. Actually, they also lie when they just found it more convenient. Truth be told, they lie when it really didn’t need to lie, but they just want to stay in practice. The main way they get away with it is by monopolizing the civic culture. It gave us a lifetime of amusement.

Even at the time, those of us who paid attention to such things doubted it. Bill paid attention. Eventually, events forced millions—ultimately a majority of Americans and much of the active military—to pay attention, and they came to doubt it.

History leaves no doubt as to whether the people or their government was right about it. Simply put, our lords and masters lost that war, and not a single one of the dire prognostications they promulgated came to pass. You probably wouldn’t see that essential, underlying life-affirming lesson if you relied on the massive amount of dross produced by that continual parade of presidents, pundits, professors, documentarians, and movie makers eager to obfuscate that lesson in the service of power.

Bill was merely part of that majority of thoughtful, dubious people, but he became vociferous and noisy about those doubts. We learned to speak out and not be embarrassed or frightened into silence. We persistently and publicly demonstrated that we would not accept our exclusion. Doing this expressed skepticism about more than war or the denial of equal rights.

Organizing and mobilizing independent mass action repudiated the designated rituals which we are taught to employ to influence the authorities. Surely nobody with any memory of past experience believes that a strongly worded letter to your elected functionary is going to persuade them to move against systemic racism, sexism, imperialism, and the unprecedented record polarization of wealth? Or singing a petition politely asking for such things. Or ultimately groveling before them like a peasant supplicant.

Or you can vote for the lesser evil of the two options they offer us. A Republican party that has warred against every standard of representative politics within its reach through our entire lives. Or a Democratic Party the existence of which is defined by institutional practices that smother a democratic impulse faster than you can say Gene McCarthy or Bernie Sanders.

Public, visible demonstrations against policies also demonstrated the inabilities of the power structure and its political system to respond adequately to the concerns of the majority. Certainly, many commentators and scholars have pointed out that majority may have not been comfortable with public demonstrations of dissent and resented those of us who were organizing them. After all, the appeal of such a strategy was not to the authorities but to the people. As one co-worker told me over forty years ago, “I agree with what you’re saying. But, if I start demonstrating with you, where do I stop demonstrating? And what would it say about me because I wasn’t doing it earlier.” And, through all those intervening years and decades, as whole new technologies came into play, they have consistently repeated the old timeworn lie that demonstrations change nothing, save as a bit of window dressing for the election of this or that Savior.

Of those of our generation who built those demonstrations, Bill was part of that minority of rare souls that never lost sight of the importance and potential importance of that strategy. More than this, Bill came to believe, with a significant portion of those who built such actions that the successes of this strategy would build towards more successes. More people would learn how to organize and growing numbers would take them into the streets. In our youths, our hearts were touched by fire. And not within the ultimately institutional restraints within which Oliver Wendell Holmes described it.

Bill became inspired by the idea that we could actually change the world by encouraging the working class to take more and more power, abolishing capitalism in the process. Thousands of young people came to such conclusions in those days, though this was but a drop in the bucket of that ocean of millions of demonstrators—much less in the society as a whole. Given the decades of vicious, if selective repression of Marxism, the attempt to revive American socialism by the early 1970s was remarkable, and placed those who took on that project the exceptional among the exceptional. Once convinced, Bill never waivered.

The nature of the times meant that we found it increasingly difficult find openings to apply this approach, and those circumstances imposed a serious, tragic reality upon the course of Bill’s life and those of roughly the same age. As he was wont to point out, we may have politically come up in the 1960s, but the radicalization of the 1960s never really belonged to us. We were very young during those days. At best, we could episodically play a subaltern role in the leadership of what came to be called “the movement” or that vaguely undefined but regularly used concept of “the Left.” Bill and I—and, others, obviously—could do little more than watch as the designated—often self-designated or media-designated—leaders made choices that ultimately precluded the building of that kind of permanent, independent current we needed.

When Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters swept people into the streets, Bill took hope that the dam had finally broken and things were going to change, perhaps quickly. Interestingly, both he and I had the same response to Occupy Wall Street—which was that we began to wonder how we could get there and help defend the occupation—because each of us had mistakenly assumed that protestors had actually occupied Wall Street rather than squatting in a nearby park. As he said, the demonstrations that we watched with such hope often boiled down to some fight over symbolic differences.

Symbolic change is always easier than substantive change. In response to concerns about racism, they can give you a black president while their uniformed, armed forces escalate their violence against the black community. If you want more rights for women, they can produce a female voice for Wall Street. If you want an outsider to a clearly broken political system, they have media personalities. They’ll talk peace while they roboticize the war waged on entire peoples.

We joked about the persistent efforts to co-opt and destroy the aspirations of our old movement. We laughed when people talked about government—this government fueled by money—was going to get money out of politics. We chuckled when people urged each other to “speak truth to power,” as though power didn’t know what it was doing to us. We thought it telling when institutions talked about wanting to “empower” anybody, because any power bestowed one day, can be taken back the next.

Over the last decade, particularly, we have been watching developments with hope, but frankly very guarded hope. We had a lot to say, but each of us had independently chosen to let events take their course when we were not heeded. Experience is the best teacher.

That said, we understood well enough the historic reasons why so many of those leaders of the 1960s ultimately made their peace with the system. They got drawn—and drew themselves—into that comforting faith—and a dead-end illusion—that, ultimately, the people would be best served by taking the so-called practical approach . . . voting consistently for Democratic officeholders who, even more consistently, vote against the concerns of most of those who elected them. This Siren Call also lulls people into the civic life of a consumer rather than activist. When history looks back on the period through which we have lived, this will be the dominant fact about the prospects for change raised in the 1960s and the most important factor that limited the attainment of those prospects.

Meanwhile, the rich and the powerful in this country have engineered the greatest polarization of wealth in all of human history. The recent tax reform, legislation merely capped this American experience of bipartisan hucksterism in the interest of the most vicious heist imaginable.

Among those who resisted the Democrats and urged independent action, the dominant current had mostly retreated into the realm of magical thinking—where the repetition of the correct words would somehow change things. And, if things don’t change, denounce more loudly those who are not contributing everything they have to the quest for purity that doesn’t work.

In all of this, I was fortunate enough to have made the same choices Bill made . . . on issues, on the values underlying our position on those issues, on a strategic advocacy of independent mass action, and on our peculiarly generational experience of the resolution of these problems.

Finally, when it came to making a living, the two of us chose to make a profession out of the study of history, in which we were hardly alone. We loved the life we were fortunate enough to be living, but we never forgot why we had gone into history and what we had learned about it before we entered it.

We knew from the onset that we were going to have to work harder for whatever modest success we could attain. And, in the end, we never convinced ourselves that our successes were more than tangentially related to merit.

It is true: I earn my living
But, believe me, it is only an accident.
Nothing that I do entitles me to eat my fill.
By chance I was spared. (If my luck leaves me I am lost.)

Any successes there turn on issues of employment, tenure, promotion, grants, leave, professorships, and all the brass do-dads sanctioning respectability. And most of us had little experience with such things, because we did not come from the hereditary academic castes, nor the civil service or the military—which tend to be the social origins of most in the field.

More deeply, we understood that we were entering a world dominated by short-sighted foot dragging hierarchies continually remodeling themselves to better suit the corporate universe. Neither of us ever took enough mild-altering narcotics to buy into the remarkable notion of going into higher education to transform it into an instrument of positive change or something. We would have to stomach life in institutions of higher education founded by slaveholders and now positioning themselves as arbiters of social justice.

Too, we expected dwindling resources increasingly menaced by crassly self-interest and the greed of profiteers who care little for education. We understood that no effective resistance to these things could be mounted by the academic professions. And we knew that we would find ourselves in a lifelong effort to negotiate through the fad-driven preoccupations and diversions that periodically washed over the field.

More to our specific place in all this, the efforts of historical studies to explain the past often winds up very much like the effort to rationalize what is with very little concern for clarifying what could have been and might well yet be.

Nevertheless, we believed deeply that this project could best be accomplished within them. Bill swam against the stream in arguing for a “people’s history.” He understood, as few do, that history itself guarantees nothing. History promises nothing. Promises can only come from people. Change can only come from people.

It seemed to us to have been worth the effort, but we will leave the final decision to the future.

It was my privilege, my joy, my honor to get to swim against the current alongside Bill Pelz.

Like that rainy night in London, though, it had to end. His death brings home for all of us the fact that the time is approaching where others will cast a glance back at us and our generation.

When Bill spoke—however many years he carried with him—he did so with the voice of an angry young man. And the world was better for his having been here to do so.

And it would have been much better for much more of it . . . from him . . . from all of us.

And the sooner the better.


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