Stories told in November, 2010

JOIN

This story takes place in 1964. It was told on November 18th, 2010 by Frank.  1 Comment

We lived on Roscoe St., on the North Side, when I met Richie and Rennie and their friends in Jobs or Income Now. It was 1964 or 65, and Francoise and I had just got married. They had introduced themselves to a number of the radicals in town with two characteristics: they had been involved in the labor movement with some success — i didn’t see any rank and filers around these gatherings — and at that time there were radicals, not stars like Jesse or Sid Lens, and not impresarios like Frank Fried.

They struck me as a group of very devoted, radical kids who had immersed themselves in the lumpen whites and some blacks in a marginal area of the Uptown neighborhood. They were trying to organize the people in this community, taking the admonition of SNCC that the responsibility of white radicals was to organize within the white community. The reality was they were not organizing the white working class, they were organizing in this fragile lumpen sector, the only sector they had access to.

JOIN was not necessarily a class-conscious group. In a sense, it was very similar to what the Narodniks did in Russia. But it was activity, and they appeared to be making some progress at organizing people to take control of their lives, which I was for, and they were young, and young people are the only ones who are going to change society. They were the rebels of the time, at least the ones I was in touch with.

There’s a always a tendency among some white radicals, because of the difficulty and their upbringing, to become some kind of a groupie of the black movement or the solidarity movement, and that’s not to diminish their contribution. But the best thing you can do for any of these movements is to win over to them a section of the society you participate in; otherwise they will be totally isolated. So the intial thing SNCC told white radicals made great sense to me; I had no questions about that, you tried to do it the best you could.

With SNCC, although I did not consider myself an outsider, I was not a member. They were the generals and I considered myself a northern foot soldier. The main thing I did with them was to produce the Freedom Singers record for Mercury. JOIN, on the other hand , I plunged right into. It was right there 20 blocks from my neighborhood. And it was what SNCC had told us to do. This was on a more grassroots level than my involvement had been until then. I attended meetings, participated in demos, tried to understand what they were doing. I found myself feeling often alien to both their discussions and their way of life, but that was my problem, not theirs. Francoise and I liked them as people. Rennie was an incredibly charming salesman. And they were part of the radical milieu in Chicago. So if you wanted to be a part of radical politics — and I still did — you could hardly ignore them.

It was an interesting group of kids, and at that time the working class was not in motion; the revival of the radical movement was being led by the blacks in the south, and here you had this concurrent development among white students. I wanted to particpate as much as I could, and encourage it and find out more about it, and I was very open to new ideas and even willing to acknowledge that there might be other roads to socialism than that of the working class. But I never did give up on the idea that there are only two forces in society that are capable of real change, the working class and the bourgeoisie, and obviously the capitalist class, and their idea of change is not mine.

But very rapidly it went from that to black power and then to black chauvinism and an infantile form of black nationalism. There is a big distinction between black power and black nationalism, and between black pride and black chauvinism, and later on SNCC crossed this line. There was kind of an overlap. Later I saw the early leadership had created another basis for itself. They were in the process of losing control over SDS, and Clark Kissinger, who succeeded Paul Booth, became an RCPer; he may even have been one when he was secretary of SDS.

Alcoholics Anonymous

This story takes place in 1948. It was told on November 10th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

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.