I thought often of how hard I’d worked in the socialist movement to organize people – just get them to attend meetings, even. It didn’t seem fair that this should be so much easier. There was no justice. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, I’d had a revolutionary message that was important to people’s lives, and almost nobody would show up to hear it. Now it was 1961 and I was doing nothing but bringing in entertainment — quality entertainment, but nothing more than entertainment — and I was filling the houses.
Every time I had a crowded show, my mind was drawn back to a time not long before when I was helping to build a branch of the Socialist Workers Party in Pittsburgh. It was 1948, the mills were running full blast, and the full force of the anti-communist witch hunt had hit Pittsburgh, a year before it broke nationally. A red scare was clearly in the cards all over the country, but Pittsburgh already had Father Charles Olin Rice and his Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, plus a federation of anti-communist Eastern European groups.
Between them they had managed to create an atmosphere of intimidation that easily outstripped anything you could find in the rest of the country. It had crippled our work: our contacts had dried up and our political visibility was almost nil. Most workers, as well as students and anyone else who might have been interested in alternative politics, were scared out of their wits, and the rest were frankly indifferent, and hardly anybody was open to radical missionary work.
Farrell Dobbs was running for president on the SWP’s ticket that year, and when he came to Pittsburgh to speak we worked our cans off to put together a big meeting for him. We passed out 35,000 leaflets at plant gates and on the streets. It was very important — running a presidential campaign gives you visibility that you might never have otherwise. It gives you a chance to debate other people, not only other leftists but even mainstream candidates. You get to introduce yourself to new people. Dobbs’ campaign had managed to get some radio airplay thanks to the fairness doctrine, which was encouraging. A lively public campaign rally in Pittsburgh could help pull us out of the political quicksand.
We had rented a room for the meeting at the public library in midtown, across the street from a Masonic lodge called the Syrian Mosque. As the last of our audience straggled in, I pulled a window shade aside and looked out.
Across the street a crowd that must have numbered three thousand was streaming out of the Shriners’ auditorium. Another three thousand or so were lined up outside, waiting to go in for the second shift. I looked back at the thirty-five people we had managed to pull in — our biggest turnout yet — and I wondered out loud what it was that they were selling over there.
Someone overheard me. “lt’s Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said. For the first time in my political life, I wondered for a moment if I would live to see three thousand people lined up to get into a socialist meeting. I haven’t, as it turned out. I guess it says as much about society as it does about the socialist movement that to this day the movement can‘t compete with Alcoholics Anonymous, or any of its spinoffs.
Incidentally, Father Rice years later came to regret his role in the red-baiting in Pittsburgh, and became a stalwart of the movement against the war in Vietnam, proving that there is such a thing as redemption.