“We didn’t know… but we did it well”

A Precious Residue by Sam Friedman (International Marxist-Humanist Organization, 2022)

Fifty years ago, socialists got blue-collar jobs in numbers, aiming to connect with fellow workers and help to foment class struggle. We’re seeing a surge of interest today in what those radicals learned, as once again some DSA members take targeted jobs with the express intent to organize.

In 2021, DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission organized three online forums where these veterans, now in their 70s, spoke with younger DSA members who questioned them closely. The first call drew an audience of more than 350. The speakers were sometimes unsparing in their critiques of their analysis of the relation of class forces at the time and of their methods of carrying out their strategies. Yet it would be fair to say that none of these long-time radicals regretted for a moment their “turn to industry.” You can watch these forums here, here (passcode N3.3EZQD), and here (passcode cA36K4+K).

The memoirs are proliferating. Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht and sociologist Barry Eidlin, from DSA’s New York City and Los Angeles chapters, respectively, are interviewing this cohort of socialists for a forthcoming book from Verso titled Turning to the Working Class. Historian and Boston DSA member Andrew Higgins is collecting essays from former members of the International Socialists (IS), one of the many groups, from Trotskyists to Maoists to independents, who took the “turn” in the 1970s. Against the Current magazine has published reminiscences by two Detroit auto workers from the IS, a New Jersey auto worker from the Socialist Workers Party, a Maoist auto worker in Wisconsin, and an IS truck driver

East Bay DSA member Ella Teevan wrote last year in Democratic Left that Young workers in 2022 aren’t the first to … land on the strategy of taking on rank-and-file jobs themselves with the goal of integrating socialist politics and the working class.” She reviewed a memoir by a former American Motors worker and member of the Revolutionary Union: Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War (PM Press, 2022).

And now the passion, the hubris, and what these then-young socialists learned are also celebrated in poetry.

Sam Friedman joined the IS in 1969 and was there for all the debates about where members should “industrialize.” Health care was rejected as a priority, he notes, in favor of trucking, telephone, steel, and auto.

The first lines of the first poem in his collection sum up the IS experience nicely:

We didn’t know

what the fuck we were doing,

but somehow

 

we did it well.

In 1974 Friedman founded an IS branch in New Jersey that recruited Teamsters, most of whom left, especially when the IS later split in a faction fight. One longs to know Howard and Mary Ann and Stuart, whom we meet in these poems. They are so far from the cardboard “militants” that leftists sometimes write of, generic “workers” about whose days you know nothing.

My ears recoiled at first

from Stuart’s cynicism

a well-earned doubt based on his years of defeat

Friedman is honest about the highs and the lows. A small victory over the bosses can reverberate in the mind for years:

I distributed Workers Power newspapers

in heat, snow and rain

for spare change or a donation

at the UPS gates

where the Raritan Arsenal once tested ordnance

on a New Jersey riverside swamp.

Sometimes I sold 

one or two, sometimes ten.

I had some regular fans, becoming friends,

and one or two who cursed, 

“Fuck you, Commie!”

 

But when management hassled me

one Winter 6 a.m., 

 

I sold 25, 

 

and all the workers,

even the “Fuck You!” few,

waved, smiled and honked

as they drove their brown vans

to start their delivery days.

And later when, as a new faculty member, Friedman  joins a strike at his college, 

students and faculty learned

three years’ of lessons every day.

On strike!

Living free!

Walking together,

toeing our line,

not the bosses’.

Friedman doesn’t have much good to say about the professoriate, those who “seminar about varying Perceptions of Time, the sociolinguistics of emergent boundaries … and the semiotic implications of Coca-Cola and porcelain,” while those colas are “lugged up the stairways of Academe by herniated drivers” and “while their mothers’ sponges tap out the rhythm of the hours before shift’s end on ever-glistening porcelain toilet-bowls awaiting corporate asses, and their fathers do Time within boundaries of moldy cement, do seconds, do minutes, do months, seasons, years, indeed decades of Time before they can themselves be emergent from boundaries”…

He is clear-eyed about all the defeats suffered by socialists and workers in the 1970s and since; he asks, “Was I a recruiter for Don Quixote?” But he is buoyed by recent rebellions, from Black Lives Matter to Amazon.

So maybe, just maybe, we weren’t quite so crazy

as our inner voices sometimes sneered.