By Chris Townsend
October 15, 2022
The socialist movement in the United States may have narrowly escaped total oblivion – for the time being anyway – thanks to the Occupy movement, the rise of Bernie Sanders, the many battles against police-state brutality, and, of course, the reliable effects of the boss’s complete dictatorship over working people. Some credit also goes to the left groups and publications that all in their own way did something at least to propagate our doctrine in the difficult decades since 1991.
Sometime in late 1979 I attended a socialist meeting in Florida, where I had fled in search of a job as a young worker just out of high school. The left at that time was quickly dissipating and scattering as the 1960’s radicalization had run its course. I was the only young worker at the meeting. It was Florida after all, chock-full with retirees, and my memory is that the next youngest person in the room at that moment was at least 20 years older than me. Maybe some were 50 years older or more. After the program an old-timer grabbed me, introduced himself, and asked me, “What are you reading?” This was of course the start of a guided trip to his fully stocked socialist literature table by the exit.
My literature tour was conducted by a retired toolmaker from the auto industry in Michigan, and he had been a lifetime member and militant in the Mechanics Educational Society of America (MESA) one of the most fascinating unions of the CIO era. My guide didn’t wait for me to browse the pamphlets, books, and leaflets, and make my picks. Instead, he hit me with questions; “Can you read English? How well? Did you get out of high school? Have you ever read a book? Where do you work? What’s your trade? Are you in a union yet? Have you ever heard of Marx and Engels? A guy named Lenin? Bill Foster or Gene Debs? Elizabeth Gurley Flynn? Do you know anything about socialism? About historical materialism? Do you know how the system works and why capitalism breeds war? As a worker you need to know this stuff. They don’t teach you any of this in school.”
After being peppered by these quizzes I figured I better get down to business and buy something. I picked up one of the books and my guide says point-blank, “Don’t buy that. It’s too complicated. Will take you six months to read it. Start with these.” and he handed me several one or two-page leaflets. “These are free. You don’t need to spend a lot to learn what you need to know. You can donate some pocket change if you want. You know, no bosses or rich people give us money, so we rely on working people like you to kick-in.” I scooped up several and off I went. What I picked up were a series of simple flyers that reprinted some of the classic Marxist speeches and articles of their time. All were short and to-the-point. Among them were:
Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter 1, Bourgeois and Proletarians, 1848. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007
Engels, The Wages System, article, 1881. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/05/21.htm
Engels, Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx, 1883. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/death/burial.htm
Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, 1913. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/mar/x01.htm
Lenin, Speech at the Unveiling of a Memorial to Marx and Engels, 1918. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/nov/07.htm
Debs, Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of the Violating the Sedition Act, 1924. https://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1918/court.htm
There were other short works in that batch of leaflets I took, but they were long ago lost, or I gave them away to another worker. I returned to many of those regular meetings, and it didn’t take long for the old-timer in charge of the book and pamphlet table to begin the process of training me to become the “literature agent”. “This is the most important position in our movement. If people don’t understand the theory and history of our movement, how will they ever become socialists? You gotta make sure people read the socialist literature. It takes work. Working people will believe all kinds of crap if they don’t understand how the system works against them.” Nothing I have seen in my many years has proved him wrong.
I also began the process of buying and reading socialist pamphlets and books, many from my old friend at the Sunday meetings. But he had a caution; “You know, people like to talk about our movement. They talk too much and don’t read enough. You’ll see. Some people write too much, and they confuse people, they wear people out. Some of their stuff is so long it’s scary. Workers are not going to read a book that’s two inches thick with a title that nobody can figure out. For every big, long book that was written by someone in our movement that makes sense, there are ten more written that are just hot air. Lots of hot air. Everybody wrote a book about socialism in the 1960’s, and by the time the 1970’s started working people knew less about socialism than they did ten years before. Read the basics first. Read them again and again. They are not that long anyway.”
Until illness took this old comrade in 1983 I was his most loyal apprentice at the literature table. He taught me a lot. When I first met him, I had only a bare grasp of socialism. By the time he passed I was well-read and expanding my interest in aspects of labor and socialism. He instilled in me the drive as a worker to read and learn, improve myself, and better understand what we are up against. And I am still at it more than 40 years ago, cranking out the literature. I guess I still am “the literature agent.”
One of the lessons I learned, among many, was that our movement has a distinct tendency to over-think things. I think it is a natural result of the fact that while our movement does include some simple concepts, some are quite complicated. The college educated and college situated also clearly dominate our movement, almost totally. Ordinary working people outside of the orbit of any socialist activity – probably 99% of all working people – are barely acknowledged by our movement. Ignored and at times ridiculed in fact. Our movement today does nothing that I can discern to reach out to this mass of working people untouched by socialist ideas and concepts. Do any of us accept our responsibility to talk to these workers, even a few of them? How? What literature and reading do we share with them? What would you give to a worker just encountering socialism, or the class struggle? A complicated book, or a simple flyer? Do we just hope that these many millions will discover socialism by accident, on-line, or perhaps they will take an interest in socialism because they have already heard how bad it is? Do any of us really believe that the too-long, too complicated literature that predominates in our movement will catch the eye of these working people?
Try sharing any of the six articles I have cited here with a few workers who you might know, work with, or run across. What are your preferred short-and-to-the point favorites? Can these brief and time-tested works still help to bring people closer to, and maybe into our movement?
My favorite among them has always been Lenin’s Speech at the Unveiling of a Memorial to Marx and Engels. Just a few paragraphs summed it all up. Any worker with an inkling of class consciousness could make sense of it. Lenin went outside into Red Square on that November afternoon to dedicate the hastily improvised statue to Marx and Engels, and he gave the 5-minute speech you see here probably because it was too cold and windy to linger any longer. The Soviet experiment was in mortal danger at the time, with foreign intervention closing in from all sides and counter-revolution running riot across the country.
There was no time for, and no need for, a long and complicated speech. What was needed was a short educational and motivational talk, and that’s what Lenin offered in those dark days. The time for basic socialist education and motivational agitation among the working class is now, more than ever. Over-thinking and obfuscation for whatever reasons is a roadblock to that process. The simple concepts of our movement and the urgency of our message will be heard by working people but only if we can reach them. The workplaces are one key place where we will find these working people, in enormous numbers. The college campuses are already covered. The workplaces today are the barren territory in need of our effort. We ignore the workplaces at our own peril. Take this message of Lenin into the workplace and you’ll see if people can grasp it. You’ll see, of course they can, and they will. It is our message of ultimate optimism that a better day is possible for working people.
We are unveiling a memorial to Marx and Engels, the leaders of the world workers’ revolution.
Humanity has for ages suffered and languished under the oppression of a tiny handful of exploiters who maltreated millions of labourers. But whereas the exploiters of an earlier period, the landowners, robbed and maltreated the peasant serfs, who were disunited, scattered and ignorant, the exploiters of the new period, the capitalists, came face to face with the vanguard of the downtrodden people, the urban, factory, industrial workers. They were united by the factory, they were enlightened by urban life, they were steeled by the common strike struggle and by revolutionary action.
It is to the great historic merit of Marx and Engels that they proved by scientific analysis the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse and its transition to communism, under which there will be no more exploitation of man by man.
It is to the great historic merit of Marx and Engels that they indicated to the workers of the world their role, their task, their mission, namely, to be the first to rise in the revolutionary struggle against capital and to rally around themselves in this struggle all working and exploited people.
We are living at a wonderful time, when this prophecy of the great socialists is beginning to be realised. We all see the dawn of the world socialist revolution of the proletariat breaking in several countries. The unspeakable horrors of the imperialist butchery of nations are everywhere evoking a heroic upsurge of the oppressed and multiplying their strength in the struggle for emancipation.
Let this memorial to Marx and Engels again and again remind the millions of workers and peasants that we are not alone in our struggle. Side by side with us the workers of more advanced countries are rising. Hard battles still lie ahead of them and us. In common struggle capitalist oppression will be broken, and socialism finally won!
-Lenin’s Speech at the Unveiling of a Memorial to Marx and Engels, Red Square, Moscow, November 7, 1918