Eljeer Hawkins is a community, labor and antiwar activist, and has been a member of Socialist Alternative/Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) for 23 years. Socialist Alternative is the US affiliate of the CWI, which is a global Trotskyist organization with sections on nearly every continent, fighting economic exploitation and oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation and national identity. Hawkins writes regularly on race, the criminal legal system, Black Lives Matter and the historic Black freedom movement and has also lectured at countless venues including Harvard University, Hunter College, Oberlin College and University of Toronto. In this interview, Hawkins discusses how he came to believe in the socialist cause and how a socialist society can be realized in the US.
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…. I discovered the speeches of Malcolm X … I never had a Black history course until college…. 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 [detriment] of my schoolwork. 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 [Sese Seko]. I also was on the periphery of the Workers World organization but never joined.
My mother’s death destroyed me. I lost focus, leaving school after two years. I wanted to dedicate my life to the project of revolutionary ideas and action.
Did you consider yourself a socialist from the beginning, or did that develop later?
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 [dissident] Congolese organizations with various political and economic leanings. I worked with Serge Mukendi and the Workers and Peasants Party 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…. We stayed with a member of Labor Militant in Boston, Massachusetts. 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…. 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.
What is your take on the current state of the US left, as well as the left globally?
We are at an embryonic stage of socialist ideas. The crisis of capitalism and decline of the institutions of capitalism … [have] 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 the 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 … 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 must prepare ourselves through an intense engagement in history, social struggle and political analysis because of this uncharted territory moment.
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, as well as your best.
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 … 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….
Socialism is no longer a dirty word…. 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 moral confidence and fighting capacity of working, poor and most oppressed to change their conditions.
In early November 2017, when you came to speak at a Socialist Alternative event in Worcester, Massachusetts, 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 can you maintain your optimism?
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 organizations, program and leadership in these battles are [as] essential as victory, or defeat hangs in the balances.
Building on that question, do you think there is even 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?
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 — 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 … 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 to analysis, strategy and tactics. With that said, we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, either…. 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…. 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.
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?
The debate and discussion that is in the air is reform or revolution. This past [fall] 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 … the German revolution of 1918, [the Second] Chinese [Revolution of] 1925-27, Spain [from] 1931-1937, etc. And counterpoise it to the revolutions after WWII in the aftermath of the strengthening of Stalinism and Social Democracy — 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 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.
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 Socialists of America (DSA)? How should SA orient itself toward DSA, both locally and nationally? What are your experiences in working with DSA?
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 superrich 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 health care, 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 the Democratic Party, building a sustainable fight back against corporate power, and countless other issues. SA wants to build a multiracial mass movement of the working class with socialist forces as its backbone…. 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.
Lastly, what do you see as the greatest obstacle to achieving progress toward socialism over the next, say, 5-10 years?
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…. 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 percent. 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.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.