As we veteran activists of the 1960s and early ’70s enter our años del retiro, it is time for reflection, summation, and most importantly sharing what we have learned with those reaching to grab the baton. Many of us, now grandparents, are getting questions from our grandkids and kids about our lives in the “golden age” of U.S. social movements. During this ten-to-fifteen-year stretch, those oppressed by U.S. racialized capitalism were speaking up and acting out. Inspired by the Black freedom movement in the South, all kinds of movements and organizations blossomed: Black Power, Black Panthers, Young Lords, Brown Berets, La Raza Unida, I Wor Kuen, Red Guards, Redstockings, Combahee River Collective, National Welfare Rights Organization, Gay Liberation Front, “Days of Rage,” Earth Day, and anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. There was insurrection in our auto plants—among Black workers centered around the earth-shattering Revolutionary Union Movements, RUM (Dodge RUM, Eldon Avenue RUM) and among predominantly white workers in such outposts as Norwood, Ohio. Socialism and communism, intense targets of the FBI and COINTELPRO, were re-emerging from both the McCarthy-era witch hunts and the Stalin revelations as legitimate options to achieve real democracy and power for the marginalized and working class.
Bill Gallegos has been an activist since the 1960s, when he became involved in Crusade for Justice, a revolutionary Chicano nationalist organization. He has since emerged as a leading socialist environmental justice activist, and is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. He was born in Pueblo, Colorado where his family had lived for generations as campesinos in Greater Mexico. As local families lost their land and were colonized by the expanding United States, they went to work in the mines that were developed on their former lands. Several of Gallegos’s relatives, including his grandfather, died from Black Lung. Thus from an early age the intersection of class, conquest, and ecology were part of Gallegos’s life. Both his parents served in the Second World War (his mom was a nurse) and through the GI Bill his dad was able to become an accountant, and the family moved to the barrios of north Denver. Ask any activist and they will have an “A-ha moment!”—that life changing event when it all came together. For Gallegos it was taking a Chicano Studies class in 1969 and hearing Corky Gonzalez speak. “I realized that my family history was a part of our people’s history and struggle and that our freedom could only be complete when we ended capitalism and constructed a socialist system that would ‘flip the script’ on the U.S. history of genocide, enslavement, colonialism, racism and national oppression.” As the interview details, Bill’s life took him from factory to fields to community.
The idea for this interview grew out of another Anne Lewis interview between Gallegos and Bill Fletcher () that explores the relationship between the social justice movement centered in the workplace and that centered on ecological disaster.
As one reads Lewis’s interview with Gallegos, several notable issues emerge:
(1) For every action there is a reaction, and being able to re-evaluate and modify the course is critical. Sometimes this mean old forms and frames of struggle recede and new ones emerge. Here the progression from Chicano power to ecological racism as the location from which to build the mass movement is detailed.
(2) Each historical period needs to create its time-and-space-specific “transformative demands”—those which are short of “seizing the state,” but if achieved add another layer of bricks to the revolutionary edifice. A good example from today is choosing between making police wear cameras (non-transformative) and community policing with restorative justice as the outcome (transformative). Sometimes those demands from back in the day have no meaning for today, and to reuse them would be folly. For example, during the 1961 student walk-out in McComb, Mississippi, one demand was to let black families use the town pool for one hour on a Sunday afternoon. My friend Jackie Martin (a leader of the high school walk-out) and I were retelling this to a group of young African-American and white activists from different areas of the South. While we were laughing ourselves silly at how cleverly outrageous this was (a transformative demand for sure), we were met with blank stares. They had no idea that it meant draining and refilling the pool every Sunday afternoon!
(3) Organization is crucial. We have all gotten our revolutionary high from being part of a spontaneous outburst from the people. But as events in Ferguson show, without organizations such as Organization for Black Struggle, a decades-old community organization in St. Louis, engaging in the work of building coalitions, and helping angry and newly emerging folks realize and shape demands, the potential for systemic change is ephemeral. This is especially true if we are serious about achieving socialism. The interview is chock-full with this lesson.
(4) Being a revolutionary is a life-long commitment and requires both individual commitment and collective support. We simply cannot do it alone, no matter how dedicated. Bill Gallegos’s life is testament.
Anne Lewis: How did you become politically involved?
Bill Gallegos: It was in 1969, through the first Chicano studies class at the University of Colorado. There were just a handful of Chicano students at a university that had a total student population of about 40,000. The guest lecturer was Corky Gonzales who was head of the Crusade for Justice, a militant Chicano liberation organization.
He talked about the conquest of the Southwest, about the oppression of the Chicano people, about our contributions to the economy and culture of the Southwest, and I started to think about all the stories I’d heard about my family history in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in very small towns and especially about all the hardships our family had suffered as coal miners especially, and I realized that my family history was part of this broader history.
I had grown up in Colorado where there was very blatant racism. In the 1940s there were still signs in parts of rural Colorado that said, “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” Kids were punished for speaking Spanish in schoolyards and that happened to my own family. One of my uncles had fought overseas in World War II. He applied for a job driving a milk truck and the company told him that Denver wasn’t ready for a Mexican milkman.
Early on I saw how I was treated very differently—because I was light skinned and had an Anglo-sounding first name—from my cousin, who was dark skinned and had the name Orlando. But ultimately, it made no difference if I could “pass” because to society in general I was a “dirty Mexican” whose culture was despised, whose job opportunities were limited, with virtually no political representation, etc.
So what I learned from Corky in that class was really a revelation for me. It gave me a sense of individual identity, of family identity, and of a broader sense of national identity. It rescued me from the self-hatred which had made me ashamed of my own culture.
I became active with the Crusade which was working on so many issues: police repression, support for the United Farm Workers Union, the fight against the racism of the Coors family, right wingers who dominated Colorado politics, the fight for political representation, and the right to vote. And then about a year after I graduated, I moved to California and I got involved with the Brown Berets.
The Brown Berets was similar to the Black Panther Party although at the national level it wasn’t as left and clearly revolutionary as the Black Panther Party. But where I lived in northern California, the Brown Berets began studying Marxism and we were connected with the Black Panther Party and some of the other people of color left organizations that existed in that area. So my experience of the Brown Berets was that it was a self-defense organization, but also an organization that worked for the broader liberation of our people.
There were a number of Brown Beret chapters in the Bay Area. I was a member of the one in southern Alameda County. And the thing that really struck me was almost every member of the Berets that I knew was from the working class. They came from the working class and a number of them had been in prison. The Brown Berets gave those pintos (former prisoners) a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning to their lives. That was very moving, to see these guys that had been part of that school-to-prison pipeline be able to break from that trajectory by becoming part of a social movement fighting for the liberation of our people.
AL: What was the Brown Berets’ understanding of ecology at that time?
BG: In the Brown Berets one of the important campaigns that we became involved in, as did almost every activist Chicano that I knew, was supporting the United Farm Workers (UFW). It was an obligation for us. Every weekend we were at the Safeway in support of the grape boycott. We were also security at different marches and mass actions of the Farm Workers Union.
One of the issues that the Farm Workers was raising, framed by the larger issue of the right to a union, was the health of farm workers. It was common for very young children to work in the fields with their parents. It was also very common that those fields would be sprayed with herbicides and pesticides while people were working. It also got into the water of course and into the soil. So there was an enormous amount of exposure to these harmful, these carcinogenic toxins. There were high rates of cancer and other kinds of diseases because of this. So we didn’t call it environmentalism and we didn’t call it ecology but in fact that’s what it was.
And many of the UFW members were inspired by Emiliano Zapata, a leader of the Mexican revolution who had said, “the land belongs to those who work it.” In fact, a common slogan of the farm workers (before the union purged a lot of the militant left activists) was Tierra y Libertad (land and freedom). The vision of many Chicano activists was that our land in the Southwestern United States had been stolen through conquest (in the U.S. war against Mexico) and it should be restored to the Chicano people. A new relationship to the land should be developed, one that respected Mother Earth, and not one based on industrial agriculture. These ideas were just beginning to develop then, but I’d say that’s where these connections between ecology and our freedom struggle began to be made.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the UFW purged many of its more radical members and supporters, and insisted that they were simply a trade union, not a movement for social justice, or one opposed to capitalism. When this occurred, the more radical slogans and ideas such as Tierra y Libertad disappeared. Which was a real setback for our freedom struggle.
AL: How did you get involved in socialism?
BG: After I left the Brown Berets, I joined La Raza Unida Party, which was fighting for Chicanos to break from the Democratic Party and to form our own political party. They had a major success in Crystal City, Texas where they won the leadership of the city council. This was an inspiration to Chicano activists everywhere who said, “This is what we need to do. We need to build our own power in the electoral arena.” Because we had always been represented by Anglos who did not understand our issues, our needs, our concerns, our vision.
So I got involved with La Raza Unida Party. Several of the chapters in California, New Mexico, and Texas were beginning to seriously study Marxism/Leninism. Eventually four of these chapters formed the August 29th Movement (ATM) in 1974, the first socialist organization that was made up primarily of Chicano-Mexicanos. The organization was named after the date of the huge Chicano anti-war demonstration—the Chicano Moratorium against the War—which took place on August 29, 1970, had a distinctly anti-imperialist character, and recognized the Chicano struggle as a national liberation struggle.
ATM was an awesome organization that led a number of strikes in northern and southern California, organized the largest manufacturing plant in New Mexico, created very active community organizations, organized Chicano college students, and built broad support for the land struggle in Colorado and New Mexico. I myself organized in all three areas—in a steel foundry, on a community college campus, and in the San Jose and East Los Angeles barrios. A unique theoretical contribution of the August 29th Movement was our analysis that the Chicano liberation struggle is a struggle for the right to self-determination. It was a struggle for our national rights, which had been taken from us through military conquest. We lost our land, we lost our right to govern ourselves, and we lost the right to control our economic development. So we needed to reassert our national rights. And we recognized that Chicano Liberation could best be achieved through the fight for socialism, and that socialism could only be won by recognizing the strategic importance of the Chicano Movement and the movements of other oppressed peoples of color.
AL: Was there anything in Marxism that spoke to you?
BG: I was really inspired by the Vietnamese struggle against U.S. imperialism. I remember reading a story about Ho Chi Minh when he was a young activist in Paris. He said when he studied Marxism he began to cry because it revealed to him the path towards liberation of the Vietnamese people. I think that’s how I felt. I understood that Chicano liberation wasn’t just a poetic sentiment, that it was actually rooted in a concrete analysis of history, that it was connected to class struggle and class oppression, and that there was a vision of liberation that was about genuine equality and democracy and peace. That had a powerful political and emotional impact on me.
And then I remember reading a piece from Lenin on the topic of privilege and language equality. Some Russian revolutionaries were arguing against Lenin’s strong views on self-determination. They were trying to make Lenin’s views look ridiculous and said, “Do you mean to say that in a socialist Russia if there were two children who spoke Chechen, that we should set up a school just for them.” And Lenin said, “That’s exactly what I mean. When we say no privilege and we say true equality, that’s exactly what it means: that there is cultural equality for everyone, for all oppressed peoples.” I had never heard anything like that or read anything like that which so resolutely rejected all forms of national privilege.
And all around me, activists were studying Marxism—the Black Panthers in the Black Liberation Movement, the Young Lords in the Puerto Rican struggle, the Red Guards and Kalayan among Asian-Pacific Islanders, among native Americans. And internationally of course it seemed like every liberation movement was influenced and inspired by Marxism/Leninism. So my life was situated in a very powerful current of study and exploration of new ideas, and revolutionary practice.
AL: Were there any particular people in the movement who influenced you?
BG: There was a young brother from Union City, a barrio in the Bay Area. He was a Special Forces veteran who had fought in Viet Nam, and while there saw the horror and brutality of U.S. aggression. When he came home he became active with La Raza Unida Party and visited Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade. This brother was just knocked out by his experience in Cuba, especially that the only privileged class was the children. He introduced me to Marxism and his example of humility and commitment had a profound impact on my life.
I was also influenced by Lucia Aguilar-Navarro, an East Bay Chicana. Lucia’s family were Mexicano immigrants, and she became active in college with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a Chicano student organization. As a MEChistA, Lucia was involved in the struggles for increased Chicano admissions, financial support, Chicano studies, and in support of the UFW. But she also spoke up against the oppression of women within the Chicano movement. The male activists were totally threatened by this and tried to put Lucia down by saying that she “had the biggest balls in the Chicano movement.” But she didn’t back down a bit. Later Lucia did both workplace and community organizing and was involved with this amazing strike led by ATM at a paper factory in Oakland. Lucia’s ideas and example were an inspiration to me.
There was an awesome organization from the Mission District of San Francisco called Los Siete de la Raza. Los Siete (“the seven”) referred to seven young Latinos who were accused of shooting a cop. They had done so in self-defense but went underground because they knew that a racist justice system would never believe them. A huge social movement developed around Los Siete that evolved into a movement against all forms of racist oppression against Latinos. The support for Los Siete built by this movement helped lead to their eventual acquittal of all charges when it was proven in court that the dead police officer had a long history of racism and brutality. One of the people I met from Los Siete was Joe Navarro (who later married Lucia Aguilar). Joe and I worked in a steel casting plant near Berkeley. Joe helped to lead a movement that eventually won the leadership of our Molders Union local, and he was elected president when he was only about twenty-one-years old. He later led a militant strike of Black, white, Chicano-Mexicano, and Portuguese workers that won the strongest contract in the entire international union.
Joe grew up in the housing projects in San Francisco in the Fillmore District. He was a working-class Chicano raised by a single mother, a very humble guy, and a brilliant organizer. The other foundry workers teased Joe because he would never go along with the sexist jokes and comments that are so common to male beer-time discussion. But one day, one of the workers told me, “You know we always thought Joe was kind of weird but got to respect that guy. No matter how much shit we give him, he doesn’t give in to that.” So it turns out that even though they didn’t understand him at first, they had tremendous respect for this young brother, as did I.
Those are some of the folks that had an influence on me. Of course Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Adelita (from the Mexican Revolution), Lolita Lebron (from the Puerto Rican Independence struggle), and Che Guevara also had a major impact on my political development.
AL: Do you want to talk about specific organizations?
BG: I’ve got to say something about the August 29th Movement. I think it was the first region-wide Chicano/Latino socialist organization. We had very close relationships with the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, the Black Workers Congress, and I Wor Kuen. All these organizations were oppressed people of color socialist organizations.
All of us came right from the working class or were the first in our organizations that went to college, so we didn’t have a lot of experience in how to build an organization—how to put out a newspaper, how to create a strategy, how to develop political analysis. ATM put out our newspaper called La Causa Revolutionaria (the Revolutionary Cause) in a garage with a light table, typing it out, cutting it up. We used to joke that if we knew what we were doing, we’d really be dangerous.
We led strikes in smaller factories that had a larger concentration of Chicano-Mexicano workers, like Major Safe in Los Angeles. We won a wildcat strike there in 1975. It’s very difficult to win a wildcat strike cause you’re challenging union leadership (United Steel Workers) and you’re also fighting the bosses. So we led a number of wildcat strikes and we were sometimes successful, sometimes not, but we built really strong struggles and recruited workers. As I mentioned earlier, ATM made an important theoretical contribution with our analysis that the Chicano struggle was not a struggle for integration into the existing system but a struggle for national liberation.
Although we had limited resources, we did have deep roots in the Chicano struggle and some very smart people in ATM. So we were able to do a very thorough historical analysis of our struggles.
We recognized that the critical historical factor in our development as a nation was annexation and the oppression and resistance that happened after annexation. The conquest foreclosed the possibility of us developing as part of Mexico, but racism and national oppression kept us from becoming an integrated part of the Anglo-American Nation. All of the principal forms of our oppression were created after annexation as the U.S. ruling class moved to consolidate its conquest. And out of this historical reality emerged a new nation, one that was closely connected with Mexico but with a different sense of national identity and national rights—the right to land, economic development, and self-government in our areas of historic concentration in the U.S. Southwest and California.
ATM merged with I Wor Kuen (an Asian socialist organization) in 1978, and formed the League of Revolutionary Struggle which developed as a nationwide mostly people of color socialist organization. And the majority of our leadership—at all levels—were women of color. It had a very special place in the development of socialism and revolution in the United States.
AL: What do you mean by “revolutionary”?
BG: What does it mean to be a revolutionary? It means a willingness to completely reverse the script on U.S. history. U.S. history is dispossession and genocide of the native peoples. It’s the enslavement of millions of Africans. It’s the annexation of the Southwest. It’s the super-exploitation of Asian labor. It’s colonization of Hawai’i and Puerto Rico. I don’t see how we can envision a socialist society unless we say we are going to reverse the script on that historical reality and all of the contemporary oppression that is rooted in that reality. Around language, around culture, around police repression, around our schools, around wealth disparity—every facet of society is rooted in that history.
A revolutionary United States would recognize the sovereignty and land rights of the Native Americans in a substantive and meaningful way, as well the right to independence for Hawai’i and Puerto Rico, and the special national rights of African Americans and Chicano-Mexicanos. Beyond that, I think a socialist United States should commit to reparations for African Americans, Puerto Rico, and others whom it has oppressed and super-exploited for centuries.
Our socialism should look and sound totally different from the capitalist society in which we live. We should hear the sound of the hundreds of languages spoken in the United States as the Native Peoples restore their lost languages. The common language of a socialist United States will be determined freely and without coercion, because people will recognize the need for a common tongue even as we uphold and honor language justice for all. In a revolutionary society our schools will look different. It will sound different, its music will be different, its culture will be different. Everything about it will reflect that there’s no longer a set of privileges for one nationality over another. And out of that will come new forms of culture as cultures interact on an equal basis.
U.S. revolutionaries should be unafraid to consider that even the geographic configuration of the country could be very different, that the internal oppressed nations might decide that they don’t want to be part of the United States. They may want to be independent or they may want to live in a federated relationship. I think we need to be prepared for that and it scares a lot of people on the left, usually white people. We should not let those fears stop us from rejecting all privilege and being unreservedly willing to “flip the script” on U.S. history. That’s what it means to be revolutionary to me.
This also influences how we think about our strategy or strategies for revolution. Strategy addresses the question: How can we win? In my view, the critical social forces for short and long-term change are the movements of peoples of color in the United States. These populations now number over 100 million people and will be a majority of the United States in the next thirty years or so. In some states, like California, they are already a majority and are beginning to reshape the politics of that state in a progressive direction. In addition to population size, I see these forces as critical for four main reasons: they are overwhelmingly working class; they have acquired a wealth of deep and textured experience through struggles in every social and political arena; they are situated in areas strategic to the United States—especially the South and Southwest (with its extensive border with Mexico); and they are becoming electoral majorities or strong electoral minorities in critical areas of the United States.
These communities should be the strategic center of our fight for socialism. Which means that the left should prioritize its resources, leadership development, and programmatic focus in these communities, around issues like police repression, immigrants rights, restoring and expanding voting rights, labor organizing of the South and Southwest, and so on. And around that work we should build alliances with anti-racist white workers and other sectors of society who are marginalized or economically insecure and unhappy with the way things are now. We have examples of this in the struggle which ended Jim Crow segregation in the South, a struggle led by the Black Freedom Movement that was supported by a broad range of progressive forces, including whites, Latinos, labor unions, churches, and academics.
AL: How do you see the state of the oppressed nationality movements today?
BG: With all the repression of social movements and the move to the right in this country, you started to see a lot of organizations fragment and fall apart. Many of the revolutionary nationalist organizations like the Crusade for Justice, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement no longer exist or are much weaker than they once were. The socialist organizations that had strong roots in the liberation movements, like the League of Revolutionary Struggle, are gone. They fell apart for different reasons. This has had a major impact on the oppressed nationality movements.
But there is something else that has affected those movements. I’ll give the Chicano movement as an example. The success of our struggles in the 1960s and ’70s had a very broad and complex impact. We knocked down the doors to higher education, we won the right to vote, we created new opportunities in the government sector, the corporate and business world, in academia, and in the political arena. So we had a lot more people going to college and getting their degrees and becoming part of academia. We had a lot more people getting into the business world. We had a lot more people becoming elected to office. We had a lot more people becoming professionals and attorneys and so on. It was never equal to the whites of course but these were significant gains. One result was the growth of the Chicano intelligentsia, professional strata, and business classes—what we call the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie.
As the country moved to the right, the class forces most likely to move in that direction and to accede to the new social and political reality were those same classes. Neoliberalism, while never abandoning racism and national oppression, still appealed to the narrow class interests of these sectors. Many of them began to believe that, “Chicano liberation means electing me and others like me to office. Chicano liberation means me and others like me getting tenure. Chicano liberation means getting a promotion past the glass ceiling; means getting a job on television.” Of course, they usually used the term Hispanic instead of Chicano. So while these were real gains—and I don’t want to minimize them because racism had pretty much kept the door closed on all of that—it also created conditions where these classes who are a minority of our population became dominant politically, economically, and ideologically. Their worldview of accommodation with a racist and exploitative system achieved hegemony. And the loser in this complex social reshuffling was the Chicano-Mexicano working class.
Groups like the Crusade or the August 29th Movement or the League of Revolutionary Struggle or CASA (Centro de Accion Social Autonomo) that focused on building the unity and leadership of the working class were gone. They fell apart. The working class was largely unorganized. If it was organized, it was in trade unions, and they pretty much accepted the system as is: “We just want to sit at the capitalist table and we’ll negotiate from there.” This really disarmed our social movement, and I think this happened in other liberation movements as well. You saw the rise to dominance of organizations and leaders who represented the interests mainly of the petty bourgeois and bourgeois sectors.
That situation continues right now. One of the great responsibilities of the socialist left, of the revolutionary left, is to organize and build the leadership of the working class. This is so important. And if we’re working in a liberation movement you have to build a unity and organization of the working class within that liberation movement.
I can give you an example of how the current situation can affect a liberation struggle. In 2006 there was a huge uprising for immigrants rights. I was in a march with my sons in Los Angeles that was a million people. The crowd was so large and so dense that my sons and I were trying to cross from one side of the street to the other and it took us a half hour. The crowd was enormous and the feeling of power and passion and freedom was so overwhelming you could almost taste it. This happened all over the country, not just in Los Angeles. In Colorado, which is a relatively small state, there was a rally of a hundred thousand people. All over the country wherever there were Latinos—other nationalities too, but primarily Latinos, and especially Chicanos and Mexicanos—there were these huge mass movements. Students walked out of school by the thousands. Workers walked off their jobs to join rallies. I would say that more than 90 percent of the participation in these struggles was working-class people. I mean people at the bottom. These were your domestic workers. These were your farm workers, those in non-union manufacturing and construction, jardineros, janitors—sectors of the working class that a lot of the left should recognize as really critical for progress.
Despite the overwhelmingly working-class character of this movement, its leadership was mostly in the hands of Democratic Party politicians, trade union bureaucrats, and civic and legal advocacy organizations, whose leadership is primarily among professionals and the petty bourgeoisie. The workers were pretty much without their own voice.
Things came to a head in April and May of 2006, when there was a call by some of the more militant elements of the movement for a national boycott on May Day. They felt that they could achieve their demands for full rights for all immigrants by shutting down the broad sectors of the U.S. economy that depend on immigrant and Latino and Asian labor, as well as the numerous school districts in California and the Southwest where Latino students are a majority. This would represent a militant and massive demonstration of the power of the movement, especially if it was supported by labor unions and other progressive allies.
The threat of this boycott scared the hell out of the ruling class and they turned to the leaders who were acceptable to them and told them, “You’d better put a stop to this, right now.” The movement could be tolerated as long as it is focused on lobbying, or court cases, or even peaceful marches. But it was prohibited from going beyond those narrow boundaries of struggle.
And so these middle-class and upper-class leaders, these politicos and so forth, they crushed the boycott and strike tactic. Some unions even told their workers they would not defend them from the bosses if they walked off the job on May Day. The political leaders told the students to end their walkouts from the schools. My son who was working in a dormitory cafeteria at the University of Southern California had organized everybody to walk out on May Day. The union, which was virtually invisible on that campus, sent some officials to tell the workers they were on their own if they walked off the job. With no strong left or other mass organization to represent their interests, most workers had no choice but to stay on the job. Meanwhile, the pett bourgeoisie leadership focused their efforts on lobbying in Washington, D.C., where of course they got their asses handed to them. They didn’t get a damn thing from Congress or the president until the Dreamers [activists supporting the proposed immigration reform DREAM Act—eds.] came out and dogged Obama everywhere he went and forced him to suspend the deportation of the Dreamers.
So this shows you that if the working class is not organized to assert its own interest, to have its own voice, to contend with these other class forces within its own movement, it gets sold out to our real class enemies almost every time. Socialist organizations, left organizations, socialism for the twenty-first-century organizations, whatever we call ourselves, we can’t forget the working class. Our organizations have to be home for the working class. They have to be the vehicle for the working class to recognize and utilize all of its vast capabilities—its intelligence, its courage, its ethics, its creativity. It seems to me that the left has lost something valuable by no longer recognizing the special role of the working class. There’s not enough attention given to that. And that doesn’t mean it should be done in a sectarian way, that we ignore the class interests of other sectors—of small business people and professionals and women and others—but that we should really be sensitive to the need to organize those who are the overwhelming majority of our society. I think it is critical to rebuilding strong social movements, like the Chicano movement, and is critical to rebuilding the left.
AL: What are your thoughts on environmental justice and the climate crisis?
BG: If we want to understand the roots of the ecological crisis in the United States, and of course that affects the whole world, we have to look at our history. The ecological crisis began with the genocide of native peoples and the theft of their lands. That’s when we started to burn down forests and do monocrop agriculture. The slave trade and slavery created the horribly destructive plantation system in the South. These plantations destroyed forests, ruined land, and despoiled the waters.
The military annexation of the Southwest and California from Mexico was the foundation for the ecologically devastating mining—coal, copper, uranium, silver—and petroleum-based economy. It also helped to stimulate the development of industrial agriculture systems, systems which super-exploited the labor of African American, Chicano and Mexican, Pilipino farm workers, and Asian and Puerto Rican farm workers in the Hawai’ian plantations.
There’s a deep integration of the ecological crisis in this country with this history of racism and national oppression, a history whose legacy lives on today in the lives of Black, Brown, Native, and Asian communities throughout the United States. And I think what that means is that we can’t solve these as separate questions. They are intertwined and integrated and they need to be solved together. So our program for ecosocialism or whatever we would call it must have at its center, for example, the genuine recognition of the sovereignty and treaty rights of the native peoples.
We not only need to stop oil drilling and fracking and build out a lot of solar energy, we need to restore and honor the land rights of the native peoples who over thousands of years have learned a very different relationship to mother earth. That’s one path towards restoring the land and restoring our connection with mother earth, but every social movement of people of color and also poor white folks has an environmental justice component to it. The quality of the water that they drink, the soil that they live on, the air that they breathe, is affected by the fact that they’re poor, or they are poor and dark skinned.
I have been directly involved in the environmental justice movement since 2006, when I became executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice organization in California. I began to learn about this incredibly rich and diverse social movement that is fighting for the health of their children and their communities but was also fighting to safeguard the health of Mother Earth. And I got a clear understanding that the problems of environmental racism and climate change can only be solved as part of a larger effort to transform our society. As long as we have a society that’s rooted in constant consumption and sees mother earth as a commodity, we’re never going to be able to resolve this problem. By and large, the environmental justice movement envisions a very different society that we would live in—one that puts people before profits (that’s how it’s usually expressed) and would restore our severed connection with our earth mother.
AL: Does that make the environmental justice movement revolutionary?
BG: One of the things that I love about the environmental justice movement is that they don’t redbait you. There’s a very long tradition and respect for various types of political ideas. The fact that I’m a socialist has never weighed against me within the environmental justice movement. There is even a national network called the Climate Justice Alliance that is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. The environmental justice movement, as a transformative movement, has, in my opinion, a decidedly revolutionary character.
Now as a diverse social movement that stretches from Alaska to Hawai’i throughout the continental United States, urban and suburban and rural, it obviously has a lot of different points of view. There are folks that hope, or maybe believe, that we can create a truly green economy and equity and democracy in the current system and they have waged some very important struggles. But then there are others that feel that while we have to fight for those changes, that we have to transform the current system into something very different. So the environmental justice movement has many different points of view but it’s respectful of revolutionary thinking. I really appreciate that people are not afraid of socialist and revolutionary ideas.
I believe that we can’t really solve the ecological crisis short of a fundamental transformation of society from one based on a different set of values than individual consumption. For example, even if we went to all electric vehicles, you’ve still got to build some 30 million vehicles. You’ve got to exploit non-renewable resources, and you’ve got to produce steel, and transport them to market, and advertise them, and so on. It could just lead to another cycle of endless consumption, that’s how capitalism works. I think the environmental justice community is supportive of a different kind of society based on local development, more local democracy, breaking down the industrial agriculture system to a more localized system, more healthy ways of supplying our nutritional needs, and not basing our meaning as a society or as individuals on endless consumption, but on the way we connect with each other, with a sense of community, equality, and a new relationship with mother earth. So I think the environmental justice movement has within it a revolutionary kernel and vision.
AL: Do you feel new urgency with climate justice?
BG: All of the information that’s come out about the impact of climate change says that we’re in a very drastic situation. We’re not going to avoid catastrophic impacts. So we have to fight on two fronts. We have to fight like hell for a radical transition from fossil fuels to a clean and sustainable infrastructure—transportation, energy, food production. We have to demand that the countries that have contributed most, the major capitalist imperialist countries of Europe, the United States, Japan have to take the lead in reducing their emissions and transitioning off fossil fuel.
At the same time we have to take into account that some of the impacts are unavoidable and create a fund to help those communities and nations that are going to feel the worst impact of climate change—whether that’s flooding, drought, wildfires—and also to transition their economies from fossil fuel to clean energy. The United States in particular but also the other major capitalist countries of the world have a specific obligation to mitigate the effects of the disasters that they have created.
There are island nations that are going to be flooded. So what are we going to do about that? Are they just collateral damage? There are African countries that will have no water and food supply. Are we like, “Good luck to you, may God be with you?” Or are there going to be serious resources devoted to these countries without trying to increase the economic dominance of the global North—true allocation of resources on the basis of sovereignty and respect for self-determination that would allow these countries to mitigate this disaster.
That also is true within the United States. There are communities that are already feeling it the worst, like New Orleans. We have to make certain that there’s a national program for climate adaptation as well as local and statewide programs for communities that are most vulnerable. We need a program that includes adaptation and mitigation as well as fossil fuel transition. And there’s no time to waste. We’ve got to do it now.
The environmental and environmental justice movements are not strong enough to achieve this by itself. We have to build ties with as many other social movements and struggles as we can, to address this problem that affects the future of all living things on the earth.
AL: Do you think it’s possible to solve the crisis without revolution? How do we build revolutionary strength in the belly of the beast?
BG: Can we solve this problem without a revolution? I don’t think so. The capitalist system is very resilient but one of the things our history proves to us and that we’re seeing validated all the time is that they have an enormous repressive apparatus to try to hold onto power. I don’t think they’re going to concede even a radical reform program without a revolutionary struggle.
I am a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), which in Los Angeles works in the arenas of immigrant rights and environmental justice. As you can gather, I am an unapologetic socialist and am active in FRSO because I respect so many of its organizers and thinkers, but also because it is an organization that genuinely understands the strategic importance of the oppressed nationality freedom movements in the United States. This is reflected in long-standing work against police repression of African Americans and Latinos, labor organizing (both union and worker center) particularly among workers of color, as well as in the areas of environmental justice and immigrant rights. I am appreciative of the younger leadership that has emerged in FRSO. They have a lot to teach me, and I think they have a lot to teach the movement.
As we get involved in that fight for a radical democratic program, a set of radical reforms, I think more and more people are going to realize that we can’t achieve this without a radical and revolutionary transformation of society. To save the planet we need that transformation, because as long as capitalism exists, it’s driven by the imperative of accumulation, of resource depletion, and the exploitation of working people. That’s the motive force of capitalism. Until we transcend that social system, unless we transcend that social system, I don’t know if the planet can survive. And the heart of the crisis is here in the United States so we have both a challenge and an opportunity here to affect that. There is no time to waste.