The Shelf Life of Socialism

Inside a Leninist bookstore in West St. Paul, a familiar refrain: What is to be done?

Tall, quiet, and gray, the Oakland, California, native has been involved with the store since he moved here in the mid-'90s, but has been a revolutionary for longer than that. "I was a student during the Bay of Pigs," he says. "I didn't follow it much because I was so buried in books, but I remember getting my hair cut by a barber who was just so surprised that the United States was defeated. He was a working-class guy, and it was overwhelming."

Pathfinder Bookstore has existed under different names since the October Revolution, according to Fiske, but some people might just now be learning the shop exists at all—I hadn't been to a Militant Labor Forum since 1992. Aside from Fridays, between 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., and Saturdays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., the store doesn't keep regular hours. (The doors are open more reliably at activist-driven Mayday Books on the West Bank and Arise! Bookstore and Resource Center on Lyndale Avenue.) But Pathfinder sets up tables at such events as the recent International Venezuelan Solidarity Conference at Macalester, and its selection of books, especially in Spanish, is worth seeking out.

"What I really liked about Pathfinder was they had Malcolm X in his own words, not somebody else's," says Muhammad Kareem, a member of the SWP's Young Socialists. His neat dreadlocks pulled back behind his head, Kareem describes himself as having been a "not really pol- litical black activist" in Atlanta before picking up a copy of the Militant at a Pathfinder table, and moving here to study the politics further.

You're militant, but I love you: Julian Santana of the Young Socialists  at a Pathfinder Bookstore table
Nick Vlcek
You're militant, but I love you: Julian Santana of the Young Socialists at a Pathfinder Bookstore table

"When I went to the forums, I started understanding better what was afflicting black people, what was the root cause," Kareem recalls. "And I started understanding the way forward."

Books, not bullets or ballots, have been the wider SWP's contribution to the culture. After the FBI spent $1.7 million on grooming 1,300 party informants over 38 years, a federal judge found in 1986 that the government had failed to turn up a single violation of federal law, or make any arrests. For better or worse, gatherings like tonight's believe in what can be accomplished by getting The Split of the Australian Socialist Workers Party National Committee from the Fourth International into the right hands.

"Nobody else was interested in publishing Malcolm X after he split from the [Black] Muslims," says Fiske. "The same with Nelson Mandela. He's become one of the most famous persons in the world, and people in the African National Congress had to come to us to get him published." As with many items, the store has recently run out of Mandela's first Pathfinder book in English—a giveaway during the subscription drive—though they have a copy in Spanish.

Fiske turns to the shelf devoted to Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, and here is where the party line crosses my own. As the SWP will tell you, Cubans should be proud of defeating U.S.-backed South Africa in Angola, thus hastening the end of Apartheid. And we really should have taken Castro up on that doctors offer. I'm against the embargo, too, recently condemned by the UN General Assembly for the 15th consecutive year. But isn't Cuba, you know, a dictatorship?

"There's a lot of political life within Cuba," says Fiske, when I put the question of reform to him. "The commercial media in the United States try to caricature it as one guy making all the decisions. But there's never a non-class government, and in Cuba, it's the working people that call the shots. They didn't get a drop of oil out of Angola, and they were there for 13 years. Why would they do that? There are layers in Cuba that have special privileges, but they don't get excited about the struggles of working people around the world."

True, there is never a "non-class government." There's another one to remember as I step out of the revolutionary potluck and back into the air.

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