Building a Socialist Alternative: An Interview with Eljeer Hawkins

Bryant William Sculos | Politics & Government | Interview | February 27th, 2018

(A shorter, edited-down version of this interview was first published with Truthout under the title "Inspiring a Socialist Alternative: An Interview with Eljeer Hawkins," published Feb. 24, 2018. The full version of the interview is reprinted here with permission.)

(The following is an interview conducted via email between Nov. 30, 2017 and Dec. 30, 2017, slightly edited for style)

Bryant Sculos: Can you say a bit about how you became an activist and what your early experiences were like?

Eljeer Hawkins: I was born and raised in East Harlem, New York City. It began for me at the age of 18 years old. I discovered the speeches of Malcolm X to the chagrin of my mother who was a child of the 1950s and 60s. My mom was 14 years old when Malcolm X was murdered; she wasn't very enthused to find her oldest listening to old Nation of Islam tapes with brother minister Malcolm X calling the "white man the devil." (laugh)

I never had a black history course until college. I was accepted to Howard University, but didn't have the resources to attend early classes that were in 1992. My dream was to attend Howard; I went to John Jay College for Criminal Justice, I wanted to be a defense attorney. My uncle, Wayne, my mom's brother, became instrumental in my early development as he helped me navigate US history, black history, art, and music particularly the black aesthetic. I will always be indebted to him and what he taught me.

So Brother Malcolm X was a natural starting point. My father wasn't in my life, so Malcolm X and Uncle Wayne were the men and examples I looked to growing up politically and culturally. The first bookstore I visited was Liberation bookstore in Harlem and bought my early black nationalist, cultural nationalist, and socialist books. In college, I joined the Organization of Black Students-became very active on campus-to the determent of my school work. My life changed forever when my mother died at the age of 43 from a massive heart attack. At this time I was engaged in solidarity work with a group in the Congo-formerly called Zaire under the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu. I also was on the periphery of the Workers World organization but never joined.

My mother's death destroyed me; I lost focus and left school after two years. I wanted to dedicate my life to the project of revolutionary ideas and action.

BS: Did you consider yourself a socialist from the beginning or did that develop later?

EH: I was a black revolutionary nationalist until one winter night after a protest in 1995. A sister activist asked me what society after the revolution was I aiming to build. I had ignorantly dismissed revolutionary Marxism as a white man's ideology. February of 1995 I attended a gathering of dissent Congolese organizations with various political and economic leanings. I worked with Serge Mukendi and the Workers and Peasants Movement of the Congo (POP). Brother Serge and the POP declared themselves to be Marxists; he played a foundational role in my political development and hunger to understand the world. Well we attended this meeting of the minds, and we stayed with a member of Labor Militant in Boston, Massachusetts (now Socialist Alternative). I began to look at the brother's bookshelf and was spellbound. I wasn't a member of any socialist organization at the time. So the comrade gave me the contact information of Labor Militant members in New York City. From February to about the early summer of 1995, I attended meetings and discussions. The organization was tiny at the time. After genuinely studying and reading the program, I decided to join and commit my life to the project of building socialism and workers' democracy internationally. I joined at a time following the fall of Stalinism, the triumphalism of capitalism, and decline of the workers' movement. So I participated in a dark moment for socialist ideas, and frankly, it steeled me in every way to march forward armed with a program, analysis, and history. So all the things I've learned and continue to learn have guided me, 23 years later in the international class struggle for socialism. Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of socialist thought and action. I'm humbled to be here for this moment.

BS: What is your take on the current state of the US left-as well as the left globally?

EH: We are at an embryonic stage of socialist ideas. The crisis of capitalism and decline of the institutions of capitalism like their two parties (Democratic and Republican) has led a whole generation to question what the hell is going on and what I can do to change things. Occupy Wall Street was the first shot across the bow, followed by vital social and political explosions and banners like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, #MeToo, and Arab Spring revolutions, etc. This is also a time for debate and discussion on how the socialist left globally can make gains and what is the best strategy and tactics to take the struggle forward. We need a level of patience, because this is a new and young milieu of activists and organizers who are feeling their way through this period of reform or revolution-battles for self-determination like in Catalonia, an environmental crisis like in California, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, and increased racial and sexual oppression. I think as this new left continues to engage in the struggle they will be forced to draw conclusions and rethink what they thought initially. We are truly living in a period of revolution and counter-revolution. We must prepare ourselves through an intense engagement in history, social struggle, and political analysis because of this uncharted territory moment.

BS: Given the unique path you've taken to become a socialist, now with decades of activist experience, I think people would be interested in hearing what your worst experience as a socialist activist has been? Best?

EH: The worst has always been debates to the point of losing sight of the centrality of the working class and their potential revolutionary agency to change the world. Now, please do not get me wrong, a debate organized and focused can provide clarity and a general roadmap on how to proceed in the struggle. The Bolshevik Party is a brilliant example of debate and discussion in the workers' movement-interconnected with political perspectives, action, and the program always centering the international working class and peasantry in the worldwide socialist revolution.

The best experience is winning a debate (laugh), just kidding. I would say witnessing how consciousness is transformed by events and interconnected developments that lead people to draw various conclusions. Consciousness can leap forward or backward based on events, how a situation is given a contextual explanation like an electoral win or defeat, and importantly who and what explains this process like an individual or organization in the struggle. I think of Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner and her political awakening. After the death of her father, she immersed herself in telling the truth and keeping his spirit alive in organizing daily for a full year to decry law enforcement violence. That is powerful to me as an activist and grassroots historian. Mamie Till, the mother of Emmitt Till, said it best when events shape one's consciousness, "Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South, I said, `That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong. I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."

Socialism is longer a dirty word, the gains like the fifteen dollar minimum wage spearheaded by low-wage workers, electoral victories and organizing of Socialist Alternative and socialist city councilor Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Washington, and a strong showing of Ginger Jentzen in the city council race in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The growth of independent working-class politics is on the agenda. The best moments are witnessing or participating in grassroots struggles that win, raising the morale, confidence, and fighting capacity of working people, the poor, and the most oppressed to change their conditions.

BS: In early November 2017 when you came to speak at a Socialist Alternative event in Worcester, MA, you said that you were a perpetual optimist. Given the state of the world today, the increasingly frequent and devastating crises of capitalism, structural racism, rampant unrepentant sexism and misogyny, and continued ecological degradation, how you can maintain your optimism?

EH: James Baldwin stated, "I cannot be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I am forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive."

That optimism comes from a study of history and examples of people fighting back to form a union, stopping an abusive boss, people organizing together for a common goal. Now, we need as Dr. King correctly stated, an urgency of NOW! And we need some action to go along with that urgency. Yes, we have dark days and nights ahead of us, particularly in this era of Trumpism and the economic terrorism of capitalism. That's why we must engage in struggle and critical political study to fortify our resolve. History teaches us when people become fed-up and can't take it anymore, people begin to move. What is crucial for the radical socialist left globally is to be prepared for that moment building organization, program, and leadership in these battles are essential as victory or defeat hangs in the balance.

BS: Building on that question, do you think there is possibly a strategic role for a kind of hopeful pessimism -a kind of expectation, given the forces rallied against the left (as well as the left's self-inflicted failures) that, at least in the short-term, things probably aren't going to turn out well, but that is precisely why we need to struggle and remain hopeful that they can, in the future, turn out well? The strategic idea being that if left activists (especially those who are new to socialism or activism in general) become too optimistic about the possibilities of short-term victories, they will become disillusioned and demobilized when faced with failure. Do you think there is anything to this perspective?

EH: You can't have a blind optimism or a cheerleader's mentality that is not rooted in the reality of class struggle-its ups and downs. The 90s were difficult, but I would not trade it in because I learned during a period of defeat. I was politically developed as a member of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) that has a sober approach that follows in the best traditions of genuine Bolshevism. The CWI draws out global political perspectives to explain the events and developments we are living through, even more, critically elaborating on an action program to present to workers and youth in the class struggle rooted in their lived experience under this system.

It is true the left has made mistakes, and there is an uneven history when it comes analysis, strategy, and tactics. With that said, we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater either. The building of the left or revolutionary party, even more so, Socialism, is a project that will demand the full participation and activity of the working class, youth, poor, and oppressed on a daily basis. I firmly believe we need more than smart prose, intellectual verbiage that a tiny minority in the activist world can understand, and commentary that is divorced from the concrete struggle and lives of working people. I wonder what that term "hopeful pessimism" means to someone who has been on the left for years, who carries scares and tears, or a new person discovering these ideas and their voice in the struggle. That "hopeful pessimism" seems abstract and divorces oneself to standing on the sidelines and waiting. I would prefer to engage and test out my ideas in the living breathing struggle and allow the movement to judge me if I am right or wrong.

BS: Given that, and the importance that you (and Marxists in general) place on history, what historical models, regarding movements and organizations, do you think offer the best inspiration (both regarding principles and strategy/tactics) for the contemporary left?

EH: The debate and discussion that is in the air is reform or revolution. This past November marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and many are questioning the Bolshevik Revolution and party itself. I would say the Bolshevik Revolution would be instructive to study, but I would recommend all activists especially the new generation of activists to explore all the significant revolutionary movements of the past. Particularly after the Russian Revolution in 1917, like the German Revolution of 1918, Chinese Revolution (1925-27), Spain between 1931 and1937, etc. And counterpose it to the revolutions after WWII in the aftermath of the strengthening of Stalinism and Social Democracy, like China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, and anti-colonial revolutions in the so-called "third world." In my mind, this is vital because I think this generation needs a sense of historical memory and clarity of what a revolution is and how it comes to life under particular conditions and social forces. As you engage in this study, I think the Bolsheviks will stand out as a unique force that made a successful socialist revolution and fought to keep the flame alive in the face of imperial attack, third world social conditions, civil war, and isolation.

BS: You and I are both members of Socialist Alternative (SA), so obviously we have a shared vision of principles and strategy, but what is your perspective on the uptick in popularity and paper membership of the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA)? How should SA orient itself toward DSA, both locally and nationally? What are your experiences in working with DSA?

EH: This version of DSA is not your momma or daddy's DSA. DSA is a different organization from its original foundations in the 1960s under the leadership of Michael Harrington; I think this past summer's convention proved that to be true. I am interested to see how it will continue to develop with 30,000 members and several DSA members taking office on a city and statewide basis nationally. The Occupy banner, Bernie Sanders phenomenon, and the capitalist crisis have led us to this moment where socialism is being examined seriously for the first time in a generation or two. This generation will be worse off than their parents; they are living through a new gilded age of the super-rich reaping profits beyond imagination, and their lives are precarious in every way from income inequality to the climate crisis.

SA has worked with DSA members and chapters nationwide and would love to do so moving forward around the critical issues facing working people, poor, and the most oppressed around issues such as healthcare, jobs, education, housing, and ending law enforcement violence. We also want to engage in comradely discussion and debate around strategy and tactics for the left and related movements. We are aware of the meaningful conversations taking place inside DSA around the role of Democratic Party, building a sustainable fight back against corporate power, and countless other issues. SA wants to build a multi-racial mass movement of the working class with socialist forces as its backbone. I think the 40,000 strong rally and march against the forces of hate and reaction in Boston, MA (Aug. 2017) was a brilliant example of genuine united front work. And campaigning to show the potential power and organizing capacity of the working class and left that overshadowed and dwarfed the racist and neo-Nazi forces made the national and international news. This will be a period of clarification around ideas, history, and movement building strategy. SA is looking forward to engaging this new generation of activists and organizers because we are on the clock with no time to waste.

BS: Lastly, what do you see as the greatest obstacle to achieving progress towards socialism over the next, say, 5-10 years?

EH: We are up against an empire and global capitalism. There is no final blow against this system of oppression, war, hate, and environmental destruction. It has weapons of mass distraction and destruction at its disposal. We must be clear about what we are up against. As the Russian Revolution of 1917 and many other social movements against tyranny and corporate power have shown us, as the great Fannie Lou Hamer taught us, when people become sick and tired-the winds of change begin to swirl-what seemed impossible becomes possible. We have to prepare, which means we have to rebuild the fighting capacity of the working class, poor, and most oppressed, organizing in our workplaces, schools, and communities in a systematic and daily manner that encompasses defensive struggle to maintain what we have won and offensive battles to fight for what we want and need right now. One of the immediate tasks in front of us is reigniting the early stages of the resistance against Trump and the Republican Party as they advance the corporate agenda just like at this tax bill its naked class warfare. We must forge a mass movement that is not episodic but is sustaining and always pushing forward. Living that famous civil rights anthem to the fullest "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."

Trump can be defeated, but we must have the will, strategy, analysis, approach, and program that centers the lives of working people and seeks to unite the working class in a common struggle against the ruling 0.1%. That's why I am incredibly excited and interested in the Poor People's Campaign this year and its possibilities in forging that movement. I may not see socialism in my lifetime, but I have been proud to be part of the struggle for socialism. To stand with the millions around the world as we say enough is enough! We will build a new world with our bare hands rooted in love for humanity, a socialist society is possible.


Eljeer Hawkins is a community, labor and anti-war activist, born and raised in Harlem, New York, and member of Socialist Alternative/CWI for 23 years. Eljeer is a former shop steward with Teamsters local 851 and former member of SEIU 1199, currently is a non-union healthcare worker in New York City. He contributes regularly to Socialist Alternative Newspaper, , and The Hampton Institute on race, criminal justice, Black Lives Matter, and the historic black freedom movement. Eljeer is a member of the editorial board of Socialist Alternative newspaper. He has also lectured at countless venues including Harvard University, Hunter College, Oberlin College, and University of Toronto.

Bryant William Sculos, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University, contributing writer for The Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate Power . His recent work has been published with Constellations , New Political Science , Class, Race and Corporate Power , Public Seminar , New Politics , and in the edited volumes The Political Economy of Robots (Palgrave, 2017) and Marcuse in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, December 2017). He is also a member of Socialist Alternative/CWI.