I first met Mike Davis in Edinburgh on a picket outside the Kings Theatre not long after the terrible September 1973 coup in Chile. Inside, the English dancer, Margot Fonteyn, was performing fresh from appearing on the stage in Santiago de Chile where tens of thousands butchered by the military were fresh in their mass graves and thousands more suffered barbaric torture in the prisons and camps of General Pinochet.
On the picket outside I was approached by a young American who had clocked I was clutching a bundle of Red Weekly, the paper of the International Marxist Group to which I then belonged. Mike Davis, then in his late ’20s, introduced himself. In truth, for an 18 year old who’d just commenced at Edinburgh University, it all seemed a bit intimidating but over the coming weeks and months I got to know Mike and he was not just great company but an education.
For Mike brought with him, firsthand, not just his experience on the US left, but direct accounts of the working class and its struggles in his native Los Angeles. He was fresh from being involved in a truckers strike where he described that the commonsense strategy in dealing with scabs was to put a sniper on a flyover above the freeway as it went up a hill and the trucks slowed. Mike argued for good sense, for collective not individual action to win over, or at least neutralise, the scabs, not kill them!
As a Scottish teenager, my knowledge of California came from the Beach Boys. This was a million miles away from “Surfing USA!”
Mike grew up first in Fontana, outside Los Angeles, centred on Kaiser's steel mill and on trucking. His father was a meat cutter. Growing up in the 1950s the American Dream seemed real. There were well paid jobs and the trade unions were strong.
Anti-communism dominated and when the family moved to Bostonia, east of San Diego, the town was dominated by stories about a supposed Chinese invasion from Mexico. Mike joined the Devil’s Pups, the kids grouping associated with the US Marines Corps.
But other influences would pull him in an altogether different direction, in the shape of Jim Stone, the husband of a cousin of Mike’s and a civil rights activist. In 1962 Mike accompanied Stone to a protest outside a bank which only employed whites. “Rednecks” tried to intimidate them but Mike began his voyage on the left, working at the San Diego offices of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
By this time, he had to start work as a meat cutter, aged 16, after his dad was laid off after a heart attack. But despite that he did finish high school and won a scholarship to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He was a fish out of water, all too aware that as a working-class kid he didn’t fit in and was eventually expelled, apparently for having moved into his girlfriend’s dorm. It was the start of Mike’s often uneasy relationship with academia.
Mike returned to LA — he was always at home in Southern California — and in 1964 became, for the next three years, an activist with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), organising sit-ins and protests across California. The Vietnam War radicalised him further and he would join the Communist Party, running its bookstore in LA. But after two years he was kicked out because of his opposition to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Mike told me some of this and I had to suppress my awe when he would talk of working along with Angela Davis, who had obviously been a friend as well as comrade prior to his expulsion.
After his stint as a trucker, he enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles and after three years came to Edinburgh on a fellowship to study Irish history. His interest in Ireland and his commitment to defeating British imperialism gave us something in common. He was a good IMG member, a good activist and great company over a few beers.
Mike’s membership of the IMG also brought him into contact with New Left Review and its editor, Perry Anderson, at that time sympathetic to the IMG and the Fourth International to which it belonged. Anderson convinced Mike to work at NLR in London from 1980 until 1986. Despite those dark Thatcherite years Mike began writing more, encouraged by his comrades at Meard Street.
The result was Mike’s most important book, in my opinion, “Prisoners of the American Dream,” most important because he was writing about his own people, warts and all. It remains the one book I’d recommend anyone wanting to find out about the US working class, its struggles and defeats to begin with.
The book came out during the Ronald Reagan years and, while it charts the heroic victories of the US working class in the 1930s and 1940s, he shows they left little legacy, particularly in terms of political advancement. Trade union officialdom remained tied to the Democrats, false friends always, and unable to overcome the racial divides.
What it does is chart how, consequently, US labour was unable to resist the first wave of neoliberalism in those Reagan years and working-class communities like Fontana and Bostonia were devastated.
We drifted apart in the 1980s, but re-established contact in 1991 just after the April uprising in South Central following the LA Police Department’s beating of Rodney King. I invited him to address a major rally organised by the British Socialist Workers Party, of whom I was now National Organiser, at North London’s Alexandra Palace.
Mike turned up, gave a short but pointedly Leninist speech, ending with a clenched fist salute. The SWP had a small but real working-class base and Mike liked talking to miners and carworkers as well as Black youth. Those were the people he felt most at home with.
Over the years we kept in touch and met up whenever he crossed the Atlantic, till eventually he had to give up travelling. He and Tariq Ali suggested I write A People’s History of Scotland and he was much in my mind as I did so, not that I could match Mike’s writing skills. He was pleased I was a dad and I was pleased he’d found happiness with his Mexican-American partner, Alessandra Moctezuma.
In the course of writing this I was chatting to a member of Sinn Féin and recommended Mike’s Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World to him as a must-read concerning the sheer brutality of British imperialism.
The theme of much of his later writings was the catastrophes capitalism was bringing down on our heads. Mike, like Walter Benjamin, did not believe we are on a train taking us to a progressive future. Instead we are on one which is out of control and heading for disaster — as has been proven by the pandemic. We need to get off that train before it's too late, and there isn’t much time left.
Mike leaves an extended family in California, Mexico and Ireland.
I think back to that evening outside the Kings Theatre when I first met Mike. He liked Scotland, and Ireland, because while the weather and the beer were different from LA and Southern California, he was at home in working-class communities. Back in California he never lost those connections, whether it was with gang members in South Central LA (he defended them against the state but was very critical of them and urged a different approach), or those fighting for trade union rights.
His books will remain his greatest legacy, and will bring light and joy to many, but it's as a class fighter I will remember Mike.
[Reprinted from counterfire.org. Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left-wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.]