Leslie Sue Cagan was born in 1947 to a Jewish couple in the South Bronx, New York. Her grandmother, a seamstress, was a founding member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, which was known for its far-left politics. In 1979, Cagan, reflecting upon her youth, wrote that she had been a “red diaper” baby whose parents at one time belonged to the Communist Party. Nearly three decades thereafter, however, she would say that she had been a “pink diaper” baby because her parents “were never in the [Communist] party,” though “they were active and obviously influenced by the politics of the era.”
Cagan, who credits her family for having raised her in a home imbued with “an activist culture and climate,” first participated in a protest when she was just 5 or 6 years old, as she and her mother joined other residents of their South Bronx neighborhood in blocking traffic at a intersection to demand that a stoplight be installed there.
In 1964 Cagan enrolled at New York University (NYU), where she joined an activist group which she described as “sort of a Friends of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] chapter,” and “sort of an SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] chapter.” In 1966 she became involved in the antiwar movement and developed what she termed “an anti-imperialist consciousness.” Contending that “the nature of U.S. capitalism and imperialism” had “created [the Vietnam] war,” Cagan was filled with “outrage and disgust at what our government was doing to the Vietnamese people and their country.”
During her years at NYU, Cagan joined a number of campus organizations and initiatives, including the Ad Hoc Committee for a Democratic University, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose Tuition Increase, and the protest of Dow Chemical Company. She was also a staff member of the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam.
In the spring of 1968, Cagan traveled to Bulgaria to attend the Ninth World Festival of Youth and Students, an event organized by (mostly Soviet-oriented) Communist Parties around the world, and attended by all manner of leftists and revolutionaries. That same year, Cagan graduated from NYU with a degree in Art History.
In the summer of 1969, Cagan attended several national conferences held by SDS and the United Front Against Fascism, the latter of which was a project of the Black Panther Party. Indeed, Cagan proudly described herself as a “Panther support person.”
In the spring of 1970, Cagan, back in the U.S., became active in the effort to free Joan Bird, one of the “Panther 21” defendants who had been charged with attempted arson, attempted murder, and conspiracies to blow up police stations, school buildings, a railroad yard, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
Cagan was a longtime admirer of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom she once characterized as “a very smart man who has worked very hard to help organize his country in a way that he thinks is valuable and positive.” In the winter of 1969-70, Cagan spent more than two months with the First Venceremos Brigade, which covertly transported young Americans to Cuba to help harvest sugar cane and interact with Havana’s Communist leadership. Organized by Castro’s Cuban intelligence agency, the Venceremos Brigades trained their participants in guerrilla warfare techniques.
In Cuba, Cagan saw what she described as “not an abstract idea of socialism or revolution,” but a society whose hallmark was a type of “humane interaction among people” that she “had never witnessed” in the United States. “While we were in Cuba [in 1969-70],” Cagan once said, “Fred Hampton and other Chicago Black Panthers were murdered. It was a shocking reminder of the brutality and power of the U.S. government, and there we were in Cuba, a whole nation under attack from the U.S. As Brigadistas we were taking a risk traveling in defiance of Washington’s travel ban, but we knew the risk was small compared to what Cubans and so many others around the world faced every day.”
During her seven years as director of the Cuba Information Project, Cagan led numerous demonstrations demanding that America end its economic embargo of, and travel ban to, Castro’s island nation.
In February 1996 at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, the National Network on Cuba (NNOC), of which Cagan was a national co-chair, sponsored a public forum that featured an address by Angela Sanbrano of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which was affiliated with the Communist guerrilla movement in that country. Another guest speaker was the Cuban revolutionary José Luis Ponce, who appeared on stage with an admiring Cagan. Ponce extolled the enormous social gains that Castro’s revolution had brought to Cuba. As the socialist publication The Militant paraphrased it, Ponce lauded the revolution for its opposition to “the legacy of U.S. domination — a legacy of unemployment, absence of health care for millions especially in the countryside, illiteracy, racism and the super-exploitation of women.” He further predicted, quite happily, that “a fight for socialism” would re-emerge in Russia. To all these assertions, Cagan nodded with approval.
Cagan was a member of the New York Committee to Free the Cuban Five. The Cuban Five were a group of five Cuban intelligence officers who were convicted in 2001 by an American jury for their participation in a brutal Fidel Castro spy ring and were subsequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the United States.
In 2009 Cagan served on the advisory committee of the Independent Progressive Politics Network. That same year, she was a member of the Committee to Celebrate the Life of Luis Miranda Rivas, a strong supporter of Fidel Castro‘s Cuban Revolution.
Throughout the 1970s, Cagan established herself as an influential activist. She would proceed, over the decades that followed, to mobilize millions of demonstrators in rallies denouncing America’s foreign policies and its purportedly virulent racism, sexism, militarism, and homophobia.
Much of Cagan’s energy in the Seventies was devoted to feminist activism. In 1971-1972, she worked with the St. Louis Women’s Radio Show. Throughout the decade, she produced programs with the Red Tape Media Collective for the Boston Feminist Radio Network. Also in Boston, Cagan helped to establish the Boston Area Socialist Feminist Organization and the Boston Women’s Union, both of which participated in such events as: (a) the “Yes We Can” Fair and Demonstration and (b) a Women’s Expo called “Choices!”
From 1974-1979, Cagan attended numerous national Marxist and socialist feminist conferences. In the late 1970s she became increasingly involved in the pro-abortion movement, serving as an organizer for both the Abortion Action Coalition and the Abortion Task Force of the People’s Alliance. As a representative of these organizations as well as the Reproductive Rights National Network, Cagan helped lead petition campaigns aimed at repealing the Henry Hyde Amendment, which outlawed most federal funding for abortion. In 1979, Cagan coordinated an Abortion Rights Action Week in Boston and an International Day of Action on Abortion and Sterilization. She also took part in International Women’s Day events and the Cambridge Commission on the Status of Women.
As the 1970s progressed, Cagan also became active with the gay rights movement. Proudly identifying herself “as a woman and as a lesbian” — both of which she has described as “not just biological or sexual terms, but political terms also” — she helped to edit the chapter on lesbianism in the influential 1970 book Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was produced by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. At the International Women’s Year National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, Cagan was a member of the National Gay Task Force, which pushed feminists to address not only issues that affected women generally, but that affected lesbians in particular. In 1978 Cagan participated in a campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, or California Proposition 6, which attempted to prevent homosexuals from teaching in the state’s public schools. Moreover, she became a member of the national Gay Speakers Bureau, and she took part in the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
In the 1980s, while still involved with the feminist and gay-rights movements, Cagan increasingly turned her attention to issues of international peace, justice, and nuclear disarmament. For instance, she worked with the People’s Alliance, an organization that grew out of the Bicentennial counter-demonstrations of 1976. As an ally of the May 6th Coalition, which had organized the 1979 March on Washington Against Nuclear Power, Cagan participated in the Coalition for a Non-Nuclear World and the Coalition for a People’s Alternative. In 1980, these two coalitions helped organize the People’s Convention and march near the site of the Democratic National Convention in New York City. From 1980-1986, Cagan was a staff member and program coordinator with the Mobilization for Survival, a coalition of more than 100 national and local organizations promoting nuclear disarmament.
In 1982, Cagan was an endorser of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which condemned capitalism as well as American “militarism.” Other notable endorsers included Stanley Aronowitz, Ed Asner, Medea Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, Marjorie Cohn, Jodie Evans, David Hartsough, Kathy Kelly, Naomi Klein, Michael Lerner, and Cornel West.
On June 12, 1982, Cagan was a lead organizer of the March and Rally in Support of the United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament, a massive anti-nuclear rally held in New York City’s Central Park, which drew more than 500,000 supporters. After that, she helped organize: (a) the 1985 April Actions for Peace, Jobs, and Justice in the District of Columbia; (b) the 1987 March in Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, one of the largest-ever rallies of its kind; (c) the 1988 Housing Action Week in New York City; and (d) the 1988 National Demonstration in support of the United Nations Third Special Session on Disarmament.
Throughout the 1980s, Cagan was active with the National Committee for Independent Political Action, which is described by KeyWiki.org as “an effort by various communists, Marxists, socialists and left-liberals to form a new Marxist political action party.”
Cagan was a featured speaker at the U.S. Peace Council‘s Tenth Anniversary National Conference in 1989, along with such notables as John Conyers, Manning Marable, Bernie Sanders, and Dessima Williams.
Cagan boasts that “while organizing against the Gulf War in 1990/1991 . . . I coordinated the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, [whose] primary focus . . . was trying to stop the mad rush to war by the U.S. government.”
In the early 1990s, Cagan was the official coordinator of the U.S. Peace Council.
In 1992 Cagan was an original co-founder of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), a splinter group rooted in the Communist Party USA (of which Cagan has been a longtime member). Cagan later went on to become co-chair of CCDS.
In 1998, Cagan endorsed a Brecht Forum celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, New York. That same year, she condemned America’s “daily assaults and attacks on poor and working people, on women, people of color, lesbians/gays and other sexual minorities, the disabled and so many others.”
Cagan was a signatory of a famous 2002 Statement by Not In Our Name (NION), a project of the Revolutionary Communist Party, denouncing America’s war against terror and its “stark new measures of repression.”
As a U.S. invasion of Iraq grew increasingly likely, Cagan cheered a massive January 2003 “peace” rally in Washington, sponsored by International A.N.S.W.E.R. — an organization closely allied with the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist entity that avidly backed Kim Jong Il’s regime in North Korea. “This is A.N.S.W.E.R.’s dance, and they get to call the tune,” Cagan said, adding: “We are at a point where it is really, really critical that many, many groups come out and voice their opposition to this [looming] war. Some in the hard-core Left have taken the lead on that, and I applaud those groups for that.”
Cagan and UFPJ characterized the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as nothing more than a manifestation of “the Bush administration’s … desire to gain control of Iraq’s oil fields.” “Oil is not worth war!” said Cagan’s UFPJ website at the time. “How much is the Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq motivated by its desire to gain control of Iraq’s oil fields?”
In 2004, Cagan described the far-left political orientation of her UFPJ coalition: “There are communists in the coalition, there are socialists, there are Marxists, there are radicals, revolutionaries, there are liberals, there are Democrats, there are anarchists, there are people who don’t have political labels. It is a very broad coalition, and we welcome that. We hope that this country has moved beyond the awful anti-communism of its past.”
Also in 2004, Cagan said the following about the Iraqi insurgents who were battling the U.S. military in Iraq: “I haven’t been to Iraq, and I’m not an Iraq scholar. What I do think is legitimate is that people who are being occupied would find a way to work against that occupation. If you call that an insurgency, then so be it.” She also said that UFPJ “doesn’t have a position on that and personally, I’m neither condemning them nor applauding them.”
In 2004 as well, Cagan co-founded — along with Global Exchange founder Medea Benjamin — the organization Iraq Occupation Watch, whose mission was to encourage widespread desertion by “conscientious objectors” in the U.S. military.
In February 2004, Cagan was a guest speaker at a Young Democratic Socialists conference in New York titled “Life After Bush.” Fellow speakers included Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, Steve Max, and Bertha Lewis.
In 1986, Cagan was the field director for the congressional campaign of Democrat Mel King in Massachusetts. She was also a member of Lesbians and Gays for Jackson, a New York City and national advisory committee of homosexuals who supported Jesse Jackson‘s run for U.S. President in 1988. In 1989, Cagan served as the co-coordinator for the New York City mayoral campaign of Democrat David Dinkins.
At an August 2003 rally commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous 1963 March on Washington, Cagan introduced herself to the crowd as “part of a community of Jews who have never broken with the civil-rights movement, and who today work against racial profiling and police brutality and discrimination in housing and education and on the job.” In the same speech, she denounced America’s Middle East policy, particularly the U.S. funding that “goes to help maintain the deadly Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.” Notably, Cagan has referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.
In 2011 Cagan was the coordinator of The Audacity of Hope, an American boat — named after the title of Barack Obama‘s 2006 memoir — that was scheduled to participate in a Free Gaza Movement flotilla in late June of that year. “We’re sending a message to our own government that we think it could play a much more positive role in not only ending the [Israeli] siege of Gaza, but also ending the whole occupation” of Palestinian land, Cagan said. The trip, however, was ultimately canceled.
In 2004, Cagan was included in Out magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential LGBT people.
In June of 2020, Cagan spoke at an “Elders For Black Lives” (EFBL) rally in City Hall Park in Manhattan. Among EFBL’s top priorities was to pressure New York City Council members and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to cut at least $1 billion from the budget of the New York Police Department.
In February 2021, the website of Historians for Peace & Democracy listed Cagan as someone who was “available to speak” on a variety of topics, including: “why working on climate change is important now; the power of public protest including mass mobilizations; challenges to organizing in a pandemic; [and] setting organizing priorities as a new [Biden] administration sets in.”