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For those deeply entrenched in US based socialist activism over the last fifty years, A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds, the newest work from prolific author Martin Duberman, may read as an informative and dishy history; a You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again for the Left Forum set. For others, the book is a handsome lecture filled with insights into poignant moments and influential people, illuminating the history of the American progressive movement dating back to the 1960s.
In the first line of the book, Duberman explains the title; a saving remnant “has historically referred to that small number of people neither indoctrinated nor freighted into accepting oppressive social condition.” In researching progressive activism from the mid to late 20th century, Duberman became interested in the fact that many ‘remnants’ of the time, such as radicals David McReynolds and Barbara Deming, were gay men and lesbians. As his researched continued, it became clear to Duberman that he wanted to write about the two friends who met through activism.
Barbara Deming (1917-1986) remains one of the most influential feminist voices within the non-violence movement in America. As Duberman explains, Barbara felt “the genius of non violent action, was that it combined two impulses long treated as distinctly masculine or feminine: self assertion and sympathy.” (160) Her essay On Revolution and Equilibrium is a touchstone for those following Gandhi’s message.
David McReynolds (born 1929) cooperated with Duberman for the book. He is a longtime anti-war activist, who in 1980 became the first openly gay man to run for president on the Socialist Party ticket. A collection of his essays, originally written in the Village Voice, came out in the 1970 book You Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century. Early on the book, Duberman shares the following quote from Reynolds: “you can’t make people do good, but you can create the conditions that make it easier for them to be decent.”
Interestingly, considering the eras in which they were raised, Deming and McReynolds both informed their parents about their homosexuality before they moved out on their own. Deming was part of an intergenerational love affair with a neighbor woman, and at 19 McReynolds simply told his parents. Throughout the book, Duberman shares such parallel facts without trying to make statements about what they could mean. Duberman uses his research not to dictate to readers. Rather it seems all a generous effort to provide context: into the lives of Deming and McReynolds, into the times in which they were living, and most satisfying, into our current political reality. Regarding her participation in the 1963 Quebec-Washington–Guantanamo Peace Walk, which included revolving arrest actions, and hunger strikes, Deming wrote, “ We assert: Here we are and we won’t disappear….we refuse to let them forget they are imposing on us.” After reading this, if you didn’t already know, Occupy can be understood not as something new, rather as the latest incarnation of activists putting freedom and body on the line.
In the same spirit, the most prescient aspect of the book centers around a disagreement Deming and McReynolds had over the film Snuff, which allegedly included the real murder of a woman. Deming, along with Adrienne Rich and others, was on the side of censoring the film. McReynolds was not; he worried about the implication on freedom of speech. In the conflict, which played out over a series of letters (almost inconceivable in this age of Facebook flame-outs), are the complex relationships that exist between feminism, the left, and the early days of gay activism. Duberman frames their difference of opinion around Snuff in historical context, situating it not only as a conflict around old and the new left, but more so deeply influenced by the tension within the feminist movement that was pitting straight women and lesbians against each other, and even more so, the growing divide we see being articulated today between the lesbian and gay activists who want homosexuals to be seen as “just folks” and people like McReynolds who are not willing to so easily reconcile sexual identity at the cost of conversations around class and race. In the end, these tensions could not stop a friendship. As Duberman tells it, they exchanged mutual sentiments of love and respect, again over letters.
A Saving Remnant is at its most engaging when viewed through the lens of the present, easily done when Duberman puts flesh to history. In one of the most fascinating and underplayed moments of the book, Duberman recounts how McReynolds’ friend and legendary activist Bayard Rustin was blocked from leadership roles within the war resistance movement by A.J. Muste, famed pacifist and mentor to McReynolds and Deming. On the surface, the book is a portrait of two committed people, enmeshed in overlapping causes, entering each other’s lives through circumstance. In giving ink to what happened to Bayard, Duberman flexes his muscles as a writer and presents the theme of the book with a subtle but powerful punch: History is relation, these relations shape our present.
A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds
By Martin Duberman
The New Press
Hardcover, 9781595583239, 336pp.