Thu Jan 29, 2004 2:20 pm - Victor Gotbaum
MP- Could you tell us how you came to Brooklyn College?
Gotbaum- I was a veteran and I had gotten out of the Army;
really, my education started with the Army. I began to do a lot
of reading and reappraisal, and I became intellectually
stimulated by myself in a sense, traveling abroad, leaving
Brooklyn, and discovering the tragedy of the world out there:
what the Nazis had committed and everything else.
It stimulated me into learning. I was in Europe- England,
France, Luxembourg, Austria, Czechoslovakia- we were the
first troops to occupy Czechoslovakia. I was reading mostly
periodicals, popular magazines, the Saturday Evening Post, the
Atlantic Monthly, anything that would come across; I read
everything I could get my hands on.
I was reading histories of England because that was my point of embarkation. The war itself enriched my historical perspective. In essence, I was from a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn- a different Crown Heights than today, traveling, meeting Southerners, getting involved with them. The whole Army experience had a tremendous impact on me, a salutary effect.
When I went to Brooklyn College a lot of the veterans were
in the same position I was in. Many of them had some higher
education. The truth is that it was a new, different kind of
group. The veterans were very strong at that time: it was 1946. I
was married and went to school with my wife, my ex-wife now, to
be exact- that was a kind of unique experience which set us a
little apart. I read Dos Passos and Richard Wright's Native Son
later on along with Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. Earlier I
read Thomas Wolfe.
M.P.- Had you majored in Political Science?
Gotbaum- Yeah. And I instructed in Political Science while
going for my Masters in International Affairs; I taught in the
evening, where you didn't need your PhD. Kerwin Stoddard
and Belle Zeller moved me, along with a young Marxist
teacher I argued with and had a good time; she gave me an A
and I remember it.
I'm so bad at remembering names. That's why I could never go into politics. At Brooklyn College at that time, the ADA would be considered rightwing. Given the crazy spectrum of Trotskyites, Stalinites, and Cannonites I was considered a centrist; in today's scene it would be left.
I never was a Marxist; l was a pragmatist which made me
really a trade unionist; two and two had to equal four today, not
tomorrow, you know. I kind of liked the old Social Democrats and
Socialists, but even there I was more oriented toward practical
trade unionism, and what I could do right now for people.
M.P.- Were the BC teachers humanists or impersonal scientists?
Gotbaum- They helped to reinforce my own inclination. They
gave me strenuously negative feelings on the kind of society
that allows Naziism by appeasing, by not facing problems.
Our luxury is the strength of our nation, the isolation of our
nation to this day, the tools of the Atomic Age.
So I don't think you can make any historical comparison. but we're in trouble. There is a danger. though not a probability of Fascism but we in America always have a tendency to swing toward
the center after things get too bad. Roosevelt was no accident.
We may go to the Right. l suspect that after Reagan
we'll go to the Left. We won't have Fascism or Communism.
M.P.- Had your BC education set you apart from the self-educated?
Gotbaum- The labor movement is changing. Albert Shanker
and Barry Feinstein are college educated: talk to Phil Caruso
of the police and you'll find he's very bright, very literate.
You're getting a different kind of leader now. The old
pragmatists who were non-educated are leaving their legacy to
the educated pragmatists, though whether this is good or
bad I don't know. We aren't the horny handed sons of toil;
the change of power from Meany to a Kirkland is symptomatic of
changes in the movement.
M.P.- It always mystifies me why Labor organized the lower
classes, and not the middle classes, who had more wealth, but not
one more jot of power over their lives. Now the labor leaders, by
virtue of income and interests, are the perfect organizers of
groups who have almost realized the bourgeois dream of an utterly
Gotbaum - Yeah, but when you hit the middle-class world, you're
dealing with self-employed people, professionals who are
difficult to organize. The dream is only a dream; the working
classes haven't vanished. There's a continuing process in which
others are tillers, builders, and a good labor leader helps their
individual and diverse as well as their communal aspirations.
M.P.- Whom did you read once you began working in the Labor
Gotbaum- John Commons, Selig Perlman, the 20th century stuff.
Theory's important; you don't understand the Russian Revolution
until you've read John Locke. It's not applicable in my work.
M.P.- Labor in the 1930s seemed to have a vision and a syncretic
talent that inspired Art. Why has this marriage between Labor and
Art begun to dissolve?
Gotbaum- We were considered the anointed in the 30s because we
were struggling and organizing massively; this was dramatic,
appealing. Labor always fought for universal free education from
its beginnings; Brooklyn College is the product of ideas that
clustered since the 19th century around Labor. We fought lot
government subsidy of the Arts, but Artists who once loved us too
much now hate us too much. They've discovered there is some
corruption abroad in Labor and they can't forgive us for being
M.P.- The mythic figures of the early 20th century like Joe Hill
and Big Bill Heywood seemed to have been replaced as legendary
stuff by Johnny Friendly. Why?
Gotbaum- We have to lose if one makes that kind of comparison.
If you compare Eugene Debs with Jimmy Hoffa we're in trouble. The
giants of those times dwarf our mythic pygmies, but be careful of
your History. Joe Hill was a drifter, Heywood was an old Marxist,
Debs was a racist; they had their feet of clay too.
Struggles purify the hero; established men of power are less interesting. I like to think I'm different from Frank Fitzsimmons. Sam Gompers favored the Trade Exclusion Act; he was anti-Asian. If you want to challenge present-day reality with past myths they'll win, but the past wasn't that beautiful. Debs didn't want to organize Blacks; nevertheless he was a great man.
M.P.- What kind of movement does not go after its interests by
stopping short of complete power?
Gotbaum - The failure of Marxism and the success of Gompers, the
disasters of Robert Owen and the results of Bill Heywood point
practically to a solution where theories we have to look at
American capitalists as a bunch of punks, but we've got to
survive within their system. He did, and did it very well. It may
be nice to be Marxist but you fail.
M.P.- How about Harry Bridges?
Gotbaum- He was interesting, basically a Stalinist but he ran a
good union. He would follow one line, but he had to get his wages
and working conditions within the maritime approach in the
maritime business community.
M.P.- How do you respond to charges that unions are inherently
unpatriotic because if they succeed, the economy can't compete
with other technologies like Japan and Taiwan; if they fail they
give legitimacy to all the dissident elements in America and drag
down the economy in another way?
Gotbaum - One of the most successful countries on the
international market has strong unionism: West Germany. So does
Japan. That's bullshit: what are we talking about?
M.P. - Do you think there's a kind of education that working
people should have that's distinct from the elitist aristocratic
traditions in European-style education?
Gotbaum- I think the system should be open. I love the city
university system because of the access they give anyone who has
those aspirations. I'm a perfect example of a subsidized student.
I was on the G.I. Bill of Rights, I went to a college that had
free tuition, I went there by paying a nickel on the subway and
having my fare subsidized. America should help those who don't
have the dough.
Cheap or free education is a personal policy of
DC 37. Lillian Roberts and I brought it about; we have our own
college campus, and some people pay absolutely nothing for it.
M.P.- Ronald Reagan is the only former head of a union to be
elected president. Do you sense there is some conservative
involution in the Labor movement?
Gotbaum - I don't want to characterize Reagan as conservatives;
we have conservatives because we are not a monolith.
M.P.- Why have Labor groups tended historically to sponsor
Realistic forms of Art?
Gotbaum - It comes out of practical need. Labor visual arts
were cartoons in the old days; Surrealism has no utility in
M.P. - As a BC Alumnus who's put his formal schooling to
work, how would you compare the wisdom of the university
to the knowledge earned from living fully in the world?
Gotbaum- The best is an amalgam. Schools that give work
experience make a lot of sense to me. When I taught at BC
without practical experience I was not good.
M.P.- Taking Norman Thomas as an example, isn't there a
tendency of uneducated people to feel as though their interests
gain legitimacy when they're taken up by a Harvard man, or one
born above them?
Gotbaum- We all have to justify our existence, and we're all
subjective about it.
M.P.- Have you grown more conservative?
Gotbaum - Experience, power and responsibility make us
conservative. Reuther merging different interests when he
took over the UAW and CIO had to go beyond his Socialist
family of Wheeling, West Virginia; experience had a levelling
influence on him.
It was okay carrying your books around the Soviet Union and studying; now we had to administer. Charles Peguy says: a conservative is a socialist who becomes an administrator.
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