I joined the labor movement 41 years ago. I had enrolled in the socialist movement two years before that. When I started out my links to the rest of the socialist movement were few; there were dwindling handfuls of people who identified publicly as “socialists.” The U.S. Mail and shortwave radio were my links to the bigger movement out there in the world. What remained of the socialist movement was rapidly decelerating and fissuring after the big 1960’s radicalization had run its course.
Even in these inopportune conditions I managed to climb aboard and find my places in both the labor and socialist movements. All these years later I am still at it. And the role played by numerous senior trade unionists, communists, and socialists who I was lucky enough to run across in my experiences played a crucial role in keeping me on that course. They showed me that you could keep at this for years, decades, and ultimately a lifetime. All counseled that this was a long race, nothing that was going to succeed overnight. They reached out and listened to me when I was young, and new, and I am still here at my post in large part because of it.
I have done a lot of the ordinary work of our movements; taken on some great responsibilities; and done some of the heaviest lifting at times. Like a few others I helped keep the fires burning through the lowest points of U.S. socialist and communist experience. There were no more bleak and demoralizing years than the 1990’s and 2000’s. One was left frequently on your own to keep up the important work with only occasional glimmers of hope. The question of the day, day after day, was “How do we rebuild our ranks and our movement?” Most times it primarily a question of keeping the dwindling socialists motivated and active — or even just communicating with each other. All of the scattered women and men who did this socialist work under those conditions deserve a commendation; this was no easy task. Defeat, setback, stagnation, and an ever-dwindling cadre of the hardcore fighters, this was the year-after-year experience for most of us. You know who you are if you held on, and held out. You deserve thanks.
And as we can all see around us today comrades, those days are over.
By comparison, our movement today overflows with new and fresh recruits – and even some reactivated veterans. The old political order is decaying. The new socialist movement is taking off, propelled by Occupy, then the Sanders movement, now the Black Lives Matter movement. The economic collapse driven by the viral plague and the nationwide rebellion against the police murder of George Floyd energizes, radicalizes, and sweeps countless new recruits into our world. And there are a hundred other root causes for this growth. Socialism is now back on the agenda, back on the streets, and back in the minds of countless workers and students. Important sections of the working class are beginning to heat up. Some of the old veterans are stirring again.
So, it is in this optimistic context that this veteran offers my short letter to the Socialists, new and old.
LETTER TO THE NEW SOCIALISTS
I would only like to address the new Socialists with the greatest respect; you join and inherit a movement of great promise and hope, but a movement set back by defeats and hobbled some days as much by our internal defects as by the hostile elements arrayed against us. But you must play the hand that is dealt to you. You already know that nothing in this capitalist system is fair. It is an ugly and un-reformable machine that opposes and retards all attempts to undermine or overthrow it, and is devised solely to exploit and rob the working class and oppressed peoples. It creates and strengthens our political opposition, those who defend this rotten set-up, both politically and militarily. It is a formidable foe.
You are needed and welcomed; I extend my best as you join and participate in our ranks. I extend my thanks to you who may have joined the movement yesterday, or you who are passing your first, second, fifth, and tenth anniversaries as socialists. Take your responsibilities to heart. Many of us never stopped believing that you were coming, and we held on. We held on when it seemed that revolutionary possibilities and socialist renewal was nearly impossible.
But that long night has passed.
So, for what they may be worth to you, I have learned a few lessons over these many years since I was a young worker and a young socialist, both. And I wish you well as you consider these thoughts of mine at this critical point in time:
1. Wherever you are at in this fight for working class emancipation, dig in, fight harder, and stick to Socialist principles. Dismiss the pleadings of former movement glitterati who long ago gave up on revolutionary change and instead settled in comfort for the least worst of what the Democratic Party offers. It’s your movement now, it’s not theirs anymore.
2. Take full active part in the struggles all around you; labor and workplace organizing, community agitation against racism, student work, tenant organizing, work amongst the oppressed and pauperized masses at any level. Sitting it out is not an option. Motionless socialists are not socialists, they are spectators and bystanders. Avoid those who do little of the work and most of the talking.
3. Encourage and invite new recruits to join our movement; help them and welcome their presence since, like you, they are the future hope of the working class. Take seriously the need to recruit new workers to our movement; and then do it. If the trade union movement treated “organizing” the way the left generally does, it would have passed out of existence long ago. It is deliberate and difficult work to recruit. So do it.
4. Never forget the calls by Bernie Sanders for “a political revolution”, and then make it happen. Bernie is passing from the scene but our movement is not; we are at a fork in the road, not at the end of anything. Sanders has opened up the floodgates for many to enter our movement, but we face the task of expanding his message and crystallizing our own thoughts and organizations to carry on the work far, far, beyond his boundaries. With his reforms and program now blocked, and with the old order collapsing before our eyes, the time for ambitious action is now.
5. Never forget that a debating society never successfully competes for power, but well organized and motivated workers and people sometimes do. Build the movement more; debate each other less. Beware the sinkhole of too much social media. Shorten the talk and take action more. Make sure you confront the bosses more than you confront each other.
6. Expect nothing but sacrifice while in our movement, but know that your contributions are appreciated by your comrades here and working people world-wide. And be mindful to put more in than you take out.
7. Lead by example; other workers and the people are watching you and they measure the movement by your deeds and character as much as measuring you by your politics. Study and develop your skills; the task of socialist reconstruction will need all of your talents. You have something to contribute here, and prepare for that day.
8. Don’t ignore the theory and philosophy of our movement. Set aside the time to sit down and study the Socialist classics; read Marx and Engels, read Lenin, Luxemburg and Debs; and read the works of the other great women and men who built the movement before us. Develop a theoretical understanding of our movement. These lessons learned will help to sustain you in harder times, and help you gain insights and knowledge that will be useful to our movement if it is to grow, become stronger, and compete for power. And do this when you are young, before life events overcome you.
9. Be careful not to over-think things; at this moment our movement requires a premium on urgency of action, not merely more historical re-visitation and argument.
10. Always remember that the class struggle is the engine of history, and that you have a role to play in it. Always take the initiative in your struggles against the bosses and their system.
11. Know that all of our Socialist predecessors were sometimes right, and sometimes wrong; they possessed no crystal ball. You don’t possess one either.
12. After looking backwards you still must look ahead; we must deal with the problems of today and not the problems of the past. Historical knowledge is critical but avoid becoming swallowed up by it.
13. Share what you learn with other workers and learn to teach and lead both. Always remember that tens of millions of workers were never able to go to college, so they may not instantly hear exactly what you are trying to say to them. Patiently pull them in and many will learn and make extraordinary contributions to our cause; ignore them or ridicule them and they may become the shock troops of reaction. I was one of these workers; how many more like me are out there unreached by our message?
14. Devise means and experiments to take the socialist message to the workers in the vast unorganized regions and industries and into the armed forces. These workers have likely never encountered socialist ideas, and they remain largely in the grasp of the bosses’ ideology – and they will be used against us at every turn. They can be won over, but not without deliberate and focused effort.
15. Learn to despise the bosses and their political front men and familiarize yourselves with the horrors they visit on working people – and draw your motivation knowing that someday, somehow, we will end their rule.
16. Learn to love – or at least tolerate – your fellow comrades no matter how wrong they may seem to be. Or try – for at least most of them.
17. Avoid most showdowns regarding internal matters, since almost always the issue is of no great importance in three days, or three weeks, or three months. Splits, factionalism, and internal divisions debilitate our movement ninety nine times for every one time that it cleanses and reinvigorates it. Don’t play with this. Condemn those who do.
18. Always remember that the system is the enemy, not the misguided among us who likewise work for its overthrow.
19. Accept your full share of the financial responsibilities to our movement; our struggle will not be successful operating on nickels and dimes. Make significant financial contributions, not token donations. Financial questions are political questions, and treat them as such.
20. Overcome your fears and apprehensions about asking others to likewise meet their full measure of financial obligation to our work. Support especially the left organizations and the left press. Stop starving them in this critical time.
21. Throw out once and for all your reverence for the old order, and dare to dream about what its replacement will look like. We want and deserve something new and better. Chattel slavery and subjugation were replaced by wage slavery, and we fight for freedom from this last slavery which holds a tight grip on billions of fellow workers worldwide. As socialists we are optimists. Our movement follows the high road of history.
22. Spend time with the old Socialists and old Bolsheviks when you can, before they are gone; talk to them, get to know them, ask them questions and pull them into your work. Learn what can be learned from them, and insist that they support the movement fully, including financially. Many have led prosperous lives and they can – and should – be generous in their support of the new socialist generation. Ask them for the money and resources to fund the movement today; many have it.
23. Always remember that the movement does not exist for your benefit; shun those who treat it as a hobby, or use it as a platform to inflate their egos, or who by design escape the un-glamorous tasks. Beware dilettantes.
24. Drive out of our movement those who are hopelessly debauched, who prey on fellow comrades, who abuse comrades and workers, and most certainly expel from our ranks all who serve the boss or the police.
25. Plan for the long haul and pace yourself, and play your part in our movement knowing that we confront a well-organized and deadly foe that will not be easily defeated. Build your life around the movement and you will be enormously enriched.
26. Keep foremost in your minds that our movement is little if it does not compete seriously for power – in the community, at election time, and in the workplaces — and only wins when it can muster credible forces superior to the enemy.
27. Always recall that we win nothing because we are right, or just, are smarter, or have a better analysis of the crisis. We win with solid and powerful organizing led by a guiding and time-tested set of Socialist principles.
28. Value the great revolutionary inheritances that come down to you as participants in the Socialist movement; we owe it commitment and loyalty as our highest obligation. “Socialism or Barbarism” is not a slogan; it is a certainty.
LETTER TO THE OLD SOCIALISTS
To the Socialist veterans, the old-timers, those with many years of experiences like myself I address all of you with even more urgency than the fresher faces. Like many of you I survived the lean years. I did my part to keep things together under those miserable conditions, for years and years. And here we are today at the start of a political upsurge and mass radicalization the likes of which none of us have seen in more than 50 years.
My message to all of you is brief, but urgent:
1. An old Marx told the young Paul Lafargue that his work was animated by the need to bring forth new blood; “I must train up men who will continue the communist propaganda after I am gone.”. See your role today likewise. Your lifetime of work and sacrifices will count for little if you sit it out at this critical moment.
2. For those re-entering the movement after years or decades, welcome. Pick up where you left off and play your part. The system is collapsing, as we knew that it would someday. Contribute once again to the struggle for something better. The new Socialists need support and leadership and not relentless criticism or lecture; figure out what you can give and give it.
3. For those prone to it, cease the bitter critiques of Bernie Sanders, and get over it; his campaigns, work, and thoughtful leadership have done much to bring forward the new radicalization. For the heartbroken, do likewise. Recall the destructive effects of sectarianism and despondency in your own movement experiences. It’s time to open even wider the doors of our movement to a new mass enrollment that will go far beyond Bernie.
4. Take stock of your life’s work and accumulations and give selflessly to the movement. Arrange to do that in your will when you pass; many of us have prospered and the movement is in dire need of the funds to function and expand. It is our obligation to help rebuild the movement through our significant financial support – today.
5. Support the work of the newcomers even if you don’t understand them completely or even if you do not fully support their current Socialist understanding. They will learn the same lessons you learned the same way you learned them and your support will enable you to influence them far more effectively than relentless criticism or boycott. Remember that some of the socialist old timers of our day looked at us frequently with scorn and derision; and it did nothing to move our movement forward. Particularly encourage young fighters who come forward from the women’s movement, from the struggles against racial discrimination and oppression, from the LGTBQ liberation movement, and seek out young workers who otherwise would never hear our messages.
6. Take care to distribute your libraries and papers to the new Socialists so as to pass along the literary inheritance; your books and pamphlets need to be scattered to the new recruits. They marvel at the old classics and publications; so share them out before you go. Introduce them to the socialist publications that have survived, and don’t assume that they will find them on their own.
7. Take heart again in this moment that we are in; you can make a difference again, even after these many years. This system is collapsing and revolutionary opportunities are opening; young fighters are refilling our ranks; there is a new and positive energy that merits our full support.
I dedicate my Letters to the Socialists to the memories of Paul Medellin; Ruth and Joe Norrick; Willard Uphaus; Fern and Henry Winston; James Matles; Gil Green; Ben Barish; Michael Harrington; William Moody; Terence Carroll; Vito DeLisi; Don Tormey; and Mary Brlas. To my many young friends and co-workers I also owe a great debt of gratitude.
Workers of all Countries, Unite!
Chris Townsend is a socialist and trade union organizer. He is an at-large member of the Marxist Center.
This article first appeared in Regeneration Magazine