The Shelf Life of Socialism

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

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

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Tonight, the next American Revolution is being waged. In West St. Paul. In front of a dozen or so people in a tiny storefront around the corner from Gene's Gun Repair.

"When you go with the experience of working people, you learn from the most important source, a human being," says Carlos Sanchez, speaking quietly before an attentive group seated in folding chairs. The subject of his talk is the thousands of Cuban doctors staffing free clinics in Venezuela.

"Why are the Cuban doctors doing this?" Sanchez says. "That's a question asked by many working people in Venezuela. The doctors are breaking prejudices, and becoming part of the community."

Behind Sanchez hangs a sales chart for subscriptions to the Militant, a newspaper started by American Trotskyists 78 years ago, which has been publishing bilingually, in Spanish and English, since 2005. The periodical, the store, and this evening's weekly Militant Labor Forum on Fridays all have separate organizations behind them. But they are all allies of the Socialist Workers Party and its Pathfinder Press, which publishes the books that line the shelves surrounding us, the faces of Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X looking on.

Sanchez opens the discussion to the floor, his shy smile suggesting relief at being out of the spotlight, and the moderator takes the podium. She calls on anyone with a hand in the air, and lets everyone speak at length, allowing a pause after each person is finished. Nobody interrupts, except with occasional, sympathetic laughter.

"I'll speak English, though it's hard," says Julio Cortez. "I'm from El Salvador. You don't have any insurance to get any medical help there. What the Cubans are doing around the world, what they're doing in—how you say—Equatorial Guinea? They are building a medical school while the U.S. just wants oil there."

Others relate emergency-room horror stories from here in the United States. Sanchez brings up the still-closed hospitals of New Orleans, where Cuba offered to send 11,000 doctors after Hurricane Katrina. Rebecca Williamson, a young meatpacker and a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, who ran as the SWP's write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate, says she has been to both Cuba and Venezuela, and sought medical help from Cuban doctors in both countries. The Cubans in Venezuela never proselytized, she says. They let their presence make its own statement.

Williamson and others talk about "capitalist doctors," and it occurs to me that I have never heard this phrase before. Capitalism is the air we breathe, and sometimes only by stepping outside of it, into the sealed-off world of the left that still studies Lenin, can you gain a full view of the usual discourse. It suddenly feels cold out there, and warm in here, amid the lulling, bible-study rhythm of verbal exchange at Pathfinder.

But I never like being in a room where everyone appears to agree. And while the speaker disparages the "bureaucratic caste" of China, his allegiance to Cuba's revolution seems unequivocal—but more on my qualms in a minute.

The moderator introduces Tom Fiske, a longtime volunteer at Pathfinder, who has an announcement to make. "The Militant Labor Forum, Pathfinder Books, and the Socialist Workers Party aim to move," he says. The room fills with applause and cheers.

Fiske goes on to explain what most people here know: The store originally relocated from University Avenue to support meatpackers at nearby Dakota Premium Foods. These workers staged a sit-down strike in the year 2000 to protest the increased speed of their production line, and the injuries they say resulted. The meatpackers—mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants—fought without a union until they got one, and the Militant covered the story nationally.

"That was one of the most important labor struggles in the United States," says Fiske, "and this was the place to be. So the Young Socialist Alliance—"

"The Young Socialists," say a few people, correcting him.

"Oh, my God, my age is showing. I should have written this out. We all want to be more centrally located now. We're looking at the Midway area, and aiming to move by the end of December. We're asking for donated goods to sell on eBay—we're trying to be 2006. I've got an old Harley Davidson clock I'm putting on there."

After the meeting has adjourned into informal conversation and eating, Fiske highlights one other thing to come out of the SWP's involvement with workers at Dakota Premium Foods. Pathfinder, he says, translated Teamster Rebellion, a firsthand account of the 1934 Teamster strikes in Minneapolis, into Spanish. (Members say the book was subsequently passed around among radicalized coal miners in Utah.) The book recounts how the SWP's precursor, the Communist League of America, led a working-class revolt here in the Twin Cities, paving the way for the CIO.

"Part of what they did was sell books like these," says Fiske, "many of the same books." He points out The Communist Manifesto and Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed.

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.

"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.