Boston Radical History Walking Tour

On July 29, nearly 100 people joined the Boston Democratic Socialists of America for our first ever Radical History of Boston Walking Tour. This tour involved the collaborative efforts of many comrades the day of and in the weeks prior.

Everywhere you go, there is a people’s history waiting to be unearthed. This history is often hidden or otherwise repressed, but it represents the real living experiences of generations of working-class people.

We hope to see other DSA chapters experiment with this format of free and accessible walking tours to help root themselves in the radical history of their communities. Boston DSA intends to put on further radical history tours, both of this route and covering other neighborhoods. If you are interested in participating, volunteering, or organizing your own, please message us at

e089a5aa0f3c74fe3e7a101d766be469A. Philip Randolph Statue – Back Bay Station

A. Philip Randolph was a leading union activist, civil rights leader, and socialist during the 20th century. He was a member of the Socialist Party and helped found the magazine The Messenger in 1917 to promote socialist ideas in the African-American community and give a progressive voice to the Harlem Renaissance. The Department of Justice called The Messenger “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications,” which is clearly a good sign. In its initial mission statement, Randolph said, “Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to.”

Some of Randolph’s greatest successes came as a union organizer. He was elected in 1925 to president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which under his direction achieved a 51% unionization rate among the nearly entirely Black workforce of sleeping car porters within a year. Hence the statue of him in a train station.

He always saw a connection between racism and sexism, and saw racial issues as class issues and class issues as race issues. He said, “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”

During WW2 he fought hard against continued discrimination in the war industries and the military under FDR’s control. It was only after he threatened to call a mass march on Washington D.C. against discrimination that FDR relented in ending discrimination in the war industries, but not the military. The march on Washington was called off for the time being, but when Martin Luther King Jr began to plan his own over 20 years later, the now-elderly Randolph was brought in as a principal organizer for the famous march. This was actually a big deal, because Cold War Red Scares had pushed Randolph out of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, but MLK, to his great credit, didn’t care.

tent-city-apartments-boston-ma-primary-photoTent City Apartments – 130 Dartmouth St.

This is the site of one of the most successful protests against “Urban Renewal” in Boston. This is a theme we will be coming back to multiple times during this tour. With the backing of significant federal subsidies, Boston city leaders launched a massive campaign of demolishing whole neighborhoods deemed “slums” to build high-income housing and highways during the ’50s and ’60s. Most famously, the West End neighborhood, roughly around where TD Garden is now, was completely wiped out and its working-class residents were displaced.

It was here on April 27, 1968, that hundreds of local residents occupied what was then an empty parking lot where once was housing to protest the continued destruction of their communities in the name of this “Urban Renewal.” Hundreds camped out here for four days, demanding better affordable housing and an end to displacement. It would take 20 years of continued pressure, but eventually that mixed-income apartment block was built and named Tent City in honor of the protesters.

Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air – 131 Clarendon St.

The building we are talking about here no longer exists. But roughly where this bank is was a smaller office building where the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air (big name) had its headquarters.

Air quality in Boston, like all US cities, is a class issue. The placement of highways, trash incinerators, factories, and other major causes of poor air quality have always been disproportionately put near the poor, people of color, and the otherwise marginalized. The powerful get to breathe easily under capitalism in more ways than one. Asthma rates in Boston today are nearly four times higher for Latinos than whites, and over five times higher for Blacks than whites.

This was even worse in the 1970s when the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air was campaigning for enforcement of the Clean Air Act. While it was a small group, it did important work to demand city officials to act to improve air quality, mostly around vehicle traffic and fuel standards.

imageDaughters of Bilitis / Gender Identity Services – 419 Boylston St.

This building is awesome, or at least it used to be. This building contained a super high concentration of leading feminist, gay, lesbian, and trans rights organizations during the 1970s, all apparently on the same floor. So let’s list them:

There was the Gender Identity Service, which provided medical counseling and help for trans people looking for gender affirmation medical procedures.

There was the Boston office for the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in 1955, it was one of the nation’s first open lesbian organizations. Later lesbian organizers would rebel against its more conservative approach of integration of lesbians into mainstream heteronormative US society through lobbying efforts for equal rights legislation, but it was the first and it remained active till 2000.

Focus: A Journal for Lesbians, the journal for the Daughters of Bilitis, had its office here. This journal ran from 1970 through 1983. Focus’ focus (haha) was geared around the promotion of lesbian rights and lesbian visibility in the US. One writer stated that Focus allowed its lesbian readership “to unite and to feel more confident about their own self-worth” and that it was “one of the most supportive lesbian publications in the early gay rights movement.”

The Homophile Community Health Services provided supportive therapy services for LGBTQIA people during the 1970s at a time when most of the psychology and therapy professions still considered any form of queerness a mental disorder.

The Gay Speakers Bureau, now renamed to SpeakOUT, had their first office here. They provided speakers to schools, churches, and community centers to raise the visibility of LGBTQIA people and answer questions. This was very important and dangerous work at the time.

And last but certainly not least, the Boston Women’s Abortion Action Coalition had its offices here. Formed in 1977 originally to oppose the Doyle-Flynn anti-abortion amendment, which proposed cutting state funding for abortions, the Coalition organized community activities and held discussion forums and educational meetings. The Coalition also worked with local unions and community groups to create a wider action network around abortion rights.

Freedom Center – 355 Boylston St.

Not as high a concentration of good groups as the last building, this one still had some great organizations. So there was the Freedom Center, which provided free counseling for people who wanted to avoid the Vietnam draft or had already been drafted and wanted out. There was the Reservists Committee to Stop the War, which, as the name states, was for military reservists who were also against the Vietnam War and didn’t want to serve. And lastly there was the Taxes for Life Center which provided what it called “free information on how to legally divest your funds from the war machine.” We will talk more about Boston and the anti-Vietnam war movement later in the tour.

Occupy Boston – Dewey Square (Not a stop, just pointed out) 

About a half a mile down that way on the Greenway, right in front of the Federal Reserve Bank, Occupy Boston had its encampment. Occupy Wall Street was a mass movement, arguably the first great mass movement post the Great Recession, that quickly spread across the whole US in the fall of 2011. Inspired by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and slogans calling out the gross inequality and injustice in America, tens of thousands of people set up protest encampments not just at Wall Street, but in every major US city. These encampments would eventually be crushed by coordinated police raids organized by the Obama administration and largely Democratic mayors, but for a time this mass movement gave expression to a deep feeling of class anger and hope for a better sort of society.

While we walk I am going to briefly read some of the words Noam Chomsky said when he spoke at Occupy Boston: “Well, now the world is indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat, again in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The plutonomy is where the action is. It could continue like this, and if it does, then this historic reversal that began in the 1970s [with Neoliberalism] could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. The Occupy movements are the first major popular reaction which could avert this. It’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on and form structures that will be sustained through hard times and can win major victories.”

250px-firstcorpscFirst Corp of Cadets Armory – 130 Columbus Ave.

Today you can spend $11,500, plus a $2,000 deposit, to have a really fancy wedding reception in this building. 100 years ago this was a display of pure class power and repression. This was the Armory of the First Corps of Cadets, built in 1891 as a direct response to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and symbol of “order” versus “the mob.”

The unmitigated plunder of the working class and rise of the robber barons after the Civil War created a deep pool of resentment and class anger. This combined with what was then called the Great Depression, that began with a financial crisis in 1873 which saw 65 continuous months of economic recession, the longest in US history, a 14% unemployment rate by 1876, and overall wages dropping to 45% of their previous level.

The strike was triggered on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company cutting the wages of workers for the third time in a year. Strikers refused to let any trains move, and the strike quickly spread to Maryland, New York, Illinois, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, where it reached near-insurrectionary levels. In Pittsburgh, hundreds of trains and train cars were destroyed and whole city blocks were burned. Socialists, largely German and Jewish immigrants at this point, made their first organized intervention into this mass strike, especially in Chicago, where they provided speakers and support. The response from the forces of capital was intense. The robber baron of the Pennsylvania Railroad company commented that the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”

While the strike wave never had a big impact on Boston, the fear of the strike did for the city’s rulers. In Boston and across the country, local state militias and the federal army built up new fortifications and armories in preparation of the “Paris Commune come to America.” And this building is one such example.

National Women’s Trade Union League headquarters – 7 Warrenton St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)

About a third of a mile down that was is a small, nondescript, residential building that I am pretty sure is being used now as a bed and breakfast. A hundred years ago it was the headquarters of the National Women’s Trade Union League. Founded in 1903 with very token support from the male-dominated American Federation of Labor, it became the first nation-wide association dedicated specifically to organizing women workers. While open to middle-class woman reformers, the League’s primary goal was to “assist in the organization of women wage workers into trade unions and thereby to help them secure conditions necessary for healthful and efficient work and to obtain a just reward for such work.”

The League’s first president was the Boston-based reformer Mary Morton Kehew, who had previously worked on a number of more charity-based working women’s educational campaigns before moving to labor unionization. The League would see its greatest successes in supporting the Uprising of the 20,000, the great New York City and Philadelphia shirtwaist workers’ strike, and the Bread and Roses strike.

The League, in New York and Boston, was also instrumental in pushing for work safety laws after the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 which killed 146 workers, mostly Jewish women immigrants. League member and socialist Rose Schneiderman said, “Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death…. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

This same Rose Schneiderman would also coin the phrase “Bread and Roses” during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence Massachusetts, when she said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Boylston Street Fishweir – Boylston Train Station

We are standing on stolen land. It’s easy to forget it, as we go about our days or even look at the history of this city from a white working-class view, but we shouldn’t. This is stolen land. The Moswetuset, whose name as well as whose land was stolen for this state, were and are a Eastern Algonquin nation that lived on the islands and waterways around here for centuries. In the summer they would live on islands around this bay and fish, and during the winter they would go further inland to the hills to the south. Moswetuset means “people of the hills.”

What became Boston was known to the Moswetuset as Shawmut, a peninsula with a thin connection to the mainland and a large tidal bay to it’s back. It is here, right around here, they built truly massive fishing weirs, essentially giant fishing traps. We know this because when they were digging the T tunnel for Boylston Station in the early 1900s, they discovered dozens of trees trunks used as this fishing weir across an acre of land.

In 1616, when the English traders first made contact with the Moswetuset in this area, it was estimated that 3,000 people lived here. In 1619, when more permanent English settlers started to arrive, there were only 500 left alive after plagues had ravaged these islands. In a way this was the first case of something we have seen time and again in Boston, displacement by force.

Boston Common

We are here on Boston Common, which has been host to hundreds upon hundreds of mass rallies over the years. It was here where we held the Women’s March in 2017, and where thousands rallied on May Day 2006 on the “Day Without a Immigrant” for the rights of the undocumented. It was here in 1912 that over 100,000 people rallied in support of the International Association of CAR MEN’s attempt to unionize the L, the predecessor to today’s T. And it was here nearly 1 year ago that 40,000 Bostonians rallied to drive the Nazi scum huddled in that gazebo out of our city.

I am going to talk specifically about the October 15, 1969 rally that saw 100,000 people protesting against the Vietnam war. At that rally, Peter Camejo of the Socialist Workers’ Party said, “Watch out for the politicians who turn up now. They’ll never march with you in the streets. There are people sitting in jail today because they were against this war. Let some politicians say something about that. We’re tired of rhetoric about ending the war that is really designed to keep this war going. The National Liberation Front of Vietnam are the most beautiful people in this world. They’re giving their lives for all of us. Seventeen million Vietnamese are counting on you to end this war.”

Howard Zinn, then a B.U. professor, also spoke, saying “We have been fighting against a basically decent revolutionary movement in Vietnam. The people of Hanoi have fought a long war for independence from foreign control. Forty thousand American men have been killed because someone threw the word Communist at us.”

lsManufactory House – 129 Tremont St.

So there are only going to be two references to the American Revolutionary War on this tour, because I find it boring with not-so-revolutionary politics in retrospect. But also its been overplayed enough here in Boston and if you want to learn more about it there are plenty of opportunities from other tours we can suggest.

For now I want to direct you to the Capital One Bank slash Peet’s Coffee over on Winter St. Where that is now was once the Manufactory House, which was essentially a poor workhouse in the 1700s where the Boston poor could work long hours at a mill for lower rent. The mill never really worked out, so it just became a place with cheap rent.

In the winter of 1768, the British troops that were stationed in Boston to put down rising troubles needed a place to sleep during the winter months. They had been camped here on the Common but obviously that wasn’t going to cut it through a Boston winter. Seeing a nearby tenement house of poor folk as easy pickings to get pushed out, the British called in the local Sheriff to evict the Manufactory House’s residents. To the surprise of the Sheriff, the Royal Governor, and the whole company of redcoats, the tenants told them no, they wouldn’t let them in and they weren’t leaving, and they barricaded the doors. The British attempted to surround the House and starve them out, but local Bostonians surrounded the surrounders and threw loaves of bread through the windows. The British even attempted to break in through the basement but became trapped down there. This lasted for two weeks before the Governor and Sheriff had to give up and let the tenants stay.

This was the first successful anti-British resistance action by colonists and a very great example of anti-eviction organizing.

54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial

(This is a good rest area, be sure to encourage folks to sit down)

This is the memorial commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. It was an all-volunteer regiment that included two of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s sons, and saw extensive combat action in the war to free their brothers and sisters from slavery. Despite their obvious dedication and skill, the Union wouldn’t allow Black soldiers to be commanded by Black officers, only white officers. The first being Robert Gould Shaw, son of a famous abolitionist, who died along with his men during the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where the regiment bravely seized the fort under intense fire — a battle that also saw the earliest African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, William Harvey Carney, though he wouldn’t get it till 1900.

On top of their often honored bravery and heroism, the 54th Massachusetts were also principled in their resistance to the racism they saw within in the Union Army. While white soldiers in the Union Army were paid $13 a month, the black soldiers of the 54th regiment were paid $7. The State of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference, but the Regiment refused to accept a cent of pay. Refusing their reduced pay became a point of honor for Regiment. At the Battle of Olustee, when ordered forward, the men did so while shouting, “Massachusetts and Seven Dollars a Month!” Eventually, Congress had to step in to raise their pay through a series of acts, but that didn’t happen until well into the war in 1864.

nhm_395x429Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee – 55 Mount Vernon St.

Over there is the Nichols House Museum, which is the founding location of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee in 1920, later to become the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was founded in the home of Margaret Nichols Shurcliff and her husband of less importance, which became the organizing hub for the early Mass ACLU. Random side note, Margaret Nicholas is also responsible for the popularization of caroling handbells in Boston during the 1920s, so that’s something.

Regardless, the Mass ACLU was formed and its early work was directed against the Red Scare of the late 19-teens and 1920s. This was a time after the Russian Revolution and the US entry into the human meat grinder of World War 1, when anti-war activists were being jailed, socialist and labor organizers were being forcibly deported, and the reactionary fearmongering techniques that would be utilized during the McCarthyist Red Scare 30 years later were being perfected.

The Mass ACLU helped to put together defense committees for victims of the Red Scare and put up a legal fight against Mayor James Curley’s censorship of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger’s right to speak on the Boston Common. This particular early case points to the often contradictory and problematic role that the ACLU has played ever since. While Margaret Sanger was a pioneer for birth control and abortion rights, she was also a flagrant proponent of eugenics, going so far as to speak before the KKK in order to “reach more people with her message.”

2010_georgemiddleton_house_pinckneyst_bostonGeorge Middleton House – 5–7 Pinckney Street

This is the second and last time I am going to mention the American Revolutionary War, but also the first time I am going to mention the African Heritage Trail, which is something you should all check out and this is a stop of. This is the home of George Middleton, who was one of only about 5,000 Blacks who served on the American side during the Revolutionary War, and who was a Colonel in an all-Black Massachusetts militia regiment.

Not much information remains from his time in the Massachusetts militia, but his time after the war as an advocate for the rights of Blacks in Boston is well documented. He helped found the African Benevolent Society, which provided job placement and financial relief for widows and orphans in the Black community. He penned a denouncement of slavery for his Masonic Lodge in which he said that, “Freedom is desirable, if not, would men sacrifice their time, their property and finally their lives in the pursuit of this?”

On one occasion later in life he helped turn back a racist white mob. It was the anniversary of the end of the legal slave trade in the early 1800s, and the Black community of Boston was having a small festival on the Common. A gang of white youth showed up and started pelting them with rock and sticks, leading the families to flee up Joy Street and past George’s house. As the white mob crested that hill, a very elderly George Middleton exited his home, stood in the middle of the street there, and aimed his blunderbuss at the mob while shouting, and they immediately turned tail and ran away.

img_0181Museum of African American History – 46 Joy St.

This is the African Meeting House, built in 1806. This was the center of the Black community of Boston for the whole 19th century. Today it is the Museum of African American History, which you should all visit when you have time. It’s also the ending stop for the Black Heritage Trail, a very excellent history walk you should all check out.

This building is the oldest still standing Black church or meeting hall in the US. Built with predominantly Black labor and community-raised money, this building became a symbol for the community for over a century, hosting many important historical meetings and occasions. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here. The 54th Massachusetts regiment, which we mentioned earlier, was recruited here.

And it was here that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech after he and his supporters were forced out of another venue by a racist mob of “Boston gentlemen.” The speech was in support of John Brown, then recently executed for fomenting rebellion in Virginia. It included, “I say, sir, that I want the slaveholders to be made uncomfortable. Every slave that escapes helps to add to their discomfort. I rejoice in every uprising at the South. Although the men may be shot down, they may be butchered upon the spot, the blow tells, notwithstanding, and cannot but tell slaveholders sleep more uneasily than they used to. They are more careful to know that the doors are locked than they formerly were… This element will play its part in the abolition of Slavery… We only need the fact to be known in the Southern States generally, that there is liberty in yonder mountains, planted by John Brown.” A great statement against “civility politics.”

Gay Community News – 22 Bromfield St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)

Also down that block, above what’s now a nail salon, was the headquarters for the Gay Community News, the earliest and longest-lasting weekly newspaper for the LGBT community in Boston. Beginning as just a newsletter in 1973, over the rise of the Gay Liberation movement and the ActUp Fight AIDS movement, it became a paper with national and international scope.

In its first issue, the newsletter stated its purpose as, “There has been a long-standing need in the Boston gay community for improved communication between the various gay organizations and gay individuals. The lack of coverage in the ‘straight’ press has added to this problem of getting necessary information to our community. Gay groups have attempted to overcome this problem by newsletters to their members, but this has led to duplicated efforts, with vast portions of the community left uninformed of events until after they have passed. The Gay Community Newsletter is meant to solve this problem.”

One of its earliest campaigns was the Prisoner Project, in which the Gay Community News raised money to send books and newspapers to Massachusetts prisoners, pre-figuring current work by groups like Black and Pink here in Boston. Part of this campaign was a successful 1980 lawsuit against the federal prison system for prisoners to gain access to gay literature.

omniparkerhouseOmni Parker House – 60 School St.

This is the Omni Parker House. Nothing too special about it on its own, though it is unionized by UNITE HERE Local 26. The really cool thing about it is that by happenstance both Malcolm X, the Black revolutionary, and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary, worked here. Ho Chi Minh as a baker in the 1910s, Malcolm X as a busboy in the 1940s. So that seems like a good excuse to read off some quotes from the two; how about it?

This is Ho Chi Minh in 1930: “The French imperialists’ barbarous oppression and ruthless exploitation have awakened our compatriots, who have all realized that revolution is the only road to survival and that without it they will die a slow death. This is why the revolutionary movement has grown stronger with each passing day: the workers refuse to work, the peasants demand land, the students go on strike, the traders stop doing business. Everywhere the masses have risen to oppose the French imperialists.”

And Malcolm X, in his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of 1964: “The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone; it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.”

King’s Chapel Burying Ground – 58 Tremont St.

The main thing to note as we walk by this cemetery is that this is where Elizabeth Pain is buried. She was a poor woman in Boston who had a child out of wedlock, which died. She was charged with murder of the child in 1692, but that crime was reduced to just negligence. Her ill-treatment by the patriarchal Puritan state and her gravestone here is considered an inspiration for the novel A Scarlet Letter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOld State House – 206 Washington St.

This street here is State Street, which used to be called King Street, and for centuries it was the main artery of Boston, for it connects to Long Wharf, the primary shipping pier for the city then. Many great historical events happened here, including the march off to the Civil War by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment while singing “John Brown’s Body.” One case to highlight is the story of Anthony Burns, who escaped slavery in 1853 but was captured and tried here in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act. His forcible deportation back to slavery infuriated the whole city, turning many Bostonians who were lukewarm on slavery into fierce abolitionists. When he was marched down this street to the awaiting ship, the whole street was lined with silent angry protesters and every building was draped in black mourning banners and upside down American flags.

City Hall Plaza

Like many places we have visited, there was once a neighborhood here before it was all bulldozed during Urban Renewal in the ’60s to build the new City Hall and this plaza. The old City Hall, as an aside, is now an overpriced steakhouse. But since its construction, this plaza and City Hall itself has been the site of countless protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, and actual riots.

It’s the latter we are going to talk about because it was here that one of the most shameful incidents in Boston history occurred, which helped to cement this city’s reputation as one of the most racist and racially segregated cities in the country. I am talking, of course, about the Busing Riots. Between 1974 and 1988, the Boston Public School system was under court mandate to forcibly desegregate its heavily segregated schools. The method they chose was busing students between the racially segregated neighborhoods to different schools, though it has been often noted that more white working-class neighborhoods than white middle- and upper-class neighborhoods were impacted.

This class dimension aside, the reactionary opposition to busing took on a full-throated racist and pro-segregationist form, which quickly turned violent. It was here, literally right there that Ted Landsmark, black civil rights activists and lawyer and now member of the Boston Planning and Development Board, was violently attacked by white teenager Joseph Rakes wielding an American flag. This moment was captured by photographer Stanley Forman, who would win a Pulitzer for the photo. Rakes served two years for assault with a deadly weapon, i.e., the American flag, and is apparently now a hazardous waste worker.

Fort Hill Plaza (Not a stop, just pointed out)

While we walk to our last stop I wanted to mentioned one more place that’s not directly on our tour. Deep in the Financial District, at the corner of High St. and Oliver St., is Fort Hill Plaza. There used to be a community there of predominantly Irish working class. But in one of the first consciously planned acts of “urban renewal” and displacement, the predominantly anti-Catholic city leaders of the time had the whole neighborhood raised to the ground. The Irish resisted but to no avail. All across this city there are the buried bones of neighborhoods and communities that were destroyed, bulldozed, re-zoned, or just priced out. Where we are crossing now is one such example, as the I-93 highway that would eventually need to be buried during the Big Dig cut through the homes of thousands and separated the North End off from the rest of the city.

Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee – 256 Hanover St.

We end our tour with one of the great miscarriages of American justice, as well as one of the first great international solidarity defense campaigns. As this plaque states, this was where the Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee had its offices. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists who, despite another person confessing to the crime and a complete frame-up of a show trial, were falsely charged and executed for a murder during a robbery. Their frame-up and execution came within the larger context of the First Great Red Scare mentioned earlier, where political dissidents, especially of foreign birth, were being rounded up and deported, while radical organizations like the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World were faced with intense police repression.

While awaiting execution, Vanzetti defended his anarchist politics and his revolutionary organizing, saying, “If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.”

An international campaign formed to defend and demand clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti, all organized from this building. The campaign involved everyone from the Soviet Union, anarchists all over the world, American radicals of every stripe, and such more mainstream luminaries as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. The day before their execution on August 21, 1927, over 20,000 people protested on the Boston Common. After their executions, there were massive and violent protests in Geneva, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Germany, and Johannesburg, and wildcat strikes in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. Their funeral in Boston is estimated to have been attended by over 200,000 people, so many that Will H. Hays, head of the motion picture industry’s umbrella organization, ordered all film of the funeral procession destroyed, lest it become further political propaganda against American justice and capitalism.

A map of the walking tour in PDF form can be found here

On Aug 4th, the Bangladesh government tried to kill children for demanding road safety and justice.

Students Protest in Bangladesh. One student is shirtless with "We want Justice" written on his chest.

By Nafis H

Updated, Aug 6 2018, 3 pm EST: The violent repression has continued for the last 48 hours and over 200 student protesters and journalists have been injured by the police and the govt’s thugs. The censorship over social media is still in full effect and prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam has been arrested under the new ICT law for speaking to Al Jazeera. While some international news agencies have covered the violence, the stories are mostly incomplete. Some of the links in this post have become invalid, so new links have been added at the bottom. To stay updated follow here — Reddit Live Thread on Bangladesh/Dhaka Protests, Reddit megathread compiling events and news articles

For the past 6 days, Bangladesh has been rocked by protests that no one had imagined. In a country where school students are actively kept away from politics, high school students came out to protest the killings of two classmates by reckless driving. This is only one in a countless string of roadside “accidents” that have warranted no implementation of law whatsoever. At least 2,417 people have been killed in road accidents this year, and the numbers have been climbing over the years. The outrage was further fueled by snide comments made by the minister Shajahan Khan, who also happens to be the president of the road transport workers’ union and is related to the owner of Jabal-e-Noor transport company whose bus was responsible for the killings. School students, aged between 14–19, have joined in the protest across the country and put out a 9-point plan and demanded immediate implementation. A new road transport act is being drafted and will be brought to table soon, but as any Bangladeshi knows, the problem lies with the implementation.

In the last 6 days, these young people have also taken it upon themselves to implement traffic law that officials never bother to enforce— checking driving licenses, vehicle registrations, creating emergency lanes for ambulances (a novelty since the liberation of the country), and even fixing broken roads. However, what really garnered the support of the general public was that the youth had the gall to try hold politicianspolice and even the militaryaccountable under the law, entities that in Bangladesh consider themselves above it. These groups of people have routinely flouted any law to line their pockets and secure their power, and have perpetuated the rule of corruption that threatens to tear the fabric of Bangladeshi society.

Of course, such due process carried out by children is a slap to the face of the authoritarian ruling regime of the country. In the last 48 hours, peaceful protesters and journalists have been beaten up by police, and unsurprisingly, the members of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL)Jubo League and Sromik League, wings of the ruling Awami League party. However, it is today that most horrifying events have taken place and are currently taking place as I write this. So far, 115 have been reported to be injured, student protesters have been shot at, and journalists and citizens who have tried to take photos and videos of the incidents have been harassed and assaulted, especially women, and their phones or cameras have been broken or snatched by BCL thugs. The majority of reports of these incidents have been circulated on Facebook, and some reports have been published in online news portals. However, there has been little coverage on the mainstream TV media of such protests; moreover, BCL members even shut down Channel 24’s live coverage of the incidents.

The government has not taken kindly to such civic action, and there have been talk about taking a harder line to quell such protests. This authoritarian regime has a track record of media blackout, police brutality aided by the government’s thugs (BCL), secret killings by its paramilitary forces and other human rights violations to protect its status quo. They have also tried to shut down social media sites, especially Facebook, in the past to suppress protests, and have routinely blamed the opposition parties for any movement that destabilizes their hold on power. Currently, the mobile internet connectivity in Dhaka has been shut down and there are fears that Facebook (12) and broadband internet will be shut down as well.

The politics of smaller countries in the Global South are generally understudied and not covered well in the West, within the left as well, and Bangladesh falls into this category. Given that this is the case, internationalizing the local politics and giving it a platform outside Bangladesh can potentially go a long way in changing the state of affairs. Developing a preliminary understanding of current events also creates more space for the left to understand how to best stand in solidarity with the left and the working classes of Bangladesh. Hence, I ask that you share news of this horrific attempt made by an authoritarian regime to destroy the future of its own country, all to preserve their hold on power.

Testimonials found on Facebook regarding today’s horrific incidents —

A protester describes abduction of his female friend on the streets.

Female student testifies about being harassed.

Injured student protester in hospital speaks on what transpired.

Student protester hiding in a hospital describes how students were attacked and are now being given refuge in the hospital.

Female journalist harassed on the streets

Witness reports of attack on student protesters — 12345678910

Videos of protests and attacks on protesters on Aug 5 and 6–1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Further Readings —

From Quota Reform to Kishor Bidroho for Road Safety: Social Movements for Justice and Rule of Law

Teenagers bring parts of Bangladesh to a halt with bus death protests

Bangladesh: Mass student protests after deadly road accident

Bangladesh students attacked during Dhaka protest

Bangladesh wants Justice

Anatomy of the student protests in Bangladesh 

Independent Power or Betrayal

Horace Vernet’s painting depicting the fighting near the Pantheon during the “June Days” in Paris in 1848

By Edward P

The PEWG Newsletter has carried one recommendation with a brief synopsis for a classic socialist text every two weeks since its launch. We’ll be a running a regular series where authors discuss why you should read and what lessons you can take from one of these classic works. If there is a book, essay, speech, or poem that is meaningful to how you understand socialism, please submit it here!

From the last two bolded words in the translation, this is the PERMANENT REVOLUTION speech in my mind, but it’s actual, more pedestrian title, is the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. You should give it a read! It’s pretty short and like Karl Marx’s more popularly targeted works easy to read minus words like bourgeoisie and proletariat (the capitalist class and the working class).

Historical Context

At the beginning of 1848, Europe was a ruled by by an interdependent set of reactionary governments. The old aristocracy that seemed to have been swept away by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests had reasserted itself, and built an above ground set of alliances and a below ground spy network intended to prevent a repeat of 1792. Where the representative government existed, enfranchisement was severely limited. In France, there were only around 300,000 eligible voters out of a population of nearly 36 Million.

The rising middle-class, the small merchants, doctors, and lawyers, chafed under the repressive regimes and agitated for having a say in government. When they finally took to the streets, first in Paris on February 22, 1848 , they were joined by a new class of people, the industrial proletariat, a group of urban people either drawn to the cities by new factory work or forced off their farms by the recurrent famines of the 1840s. They were pioneers in a new way of living where one had to sell their labor to live, but the opportunity to do so was not always a given.

This alliance of urban middle and working-class toppled or destabilized the governments of Europe one by one through the early part of the year. In France, it brought in a new government including the socialist Louis Blanc and the working-class leader Alexandre Martin (nom de guerre: Albert). However the desires of workers for reforms to the economic system were stymied by their erstwhile allies. Across the continent, the revolutionary coalition came apart and the forces of reaction clawed back the liberal democratic gains.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active participants in these revolutions as well. Marx used his recently received inheritance to buy weapons for workers in Brussels, and both Marx and Engels moved from Brussels to Cologne (with the prodding of the Belgian government), where they pamphletted in support of the revolutionaries. Engels served as an aide-de-camp to August Willich, (who has an interesting story in his own right; he’d later split with Marx over whether workers should rise up immediately, then go on to be a general in the Union army during the American Civil War) in an armed uprising against the Prussian government.

Marx delivered this speech in 1850 as the revolutionary energy of 1848 had fully given way to reaction and counter-revolution. He was chiefly interested in what lessons the League of Communists, for whom he and Engels had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847 but had played little role as an organization in the 1848 revolutions, could draw from the tumultuous year.

Betrayal and Class Interest

Marx believed the main lesson of 1848 was the betrayal of the working-class by the liberal bourgeoisie, the section of the capitalist class that was kept out of formal power by either a lack of franchise or lack of a feudal title.

It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself.

The reimposition of the old order’s authority in Germany meant that another revolution was inevitable. Marx thought the revolutionary energy would come from another class, the petite bourgeoisie — meaning the shopkeepers, clerks, doctors, and small government functionaries. This was the class of people who agitated most for an expanded franchise in the 1848 revolutions. In France, they also made up the bulk of the National Guard — a militia whose participation early in the revolution toppled the monarchy, but who would then turn against the street protests when they demanded further reforms.

None of these classes — the liberal bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie, and the workers — were powerful enough on their own to carry out their agenda. All had to act in concert with other classes to overcome the entrenched power of the state; though in the case of the proletariat it was a lack of consciousness and organization that stymied their power. In Marx’s conception, classes would only cooperate with each other to the point where they were able to achieve their ends, then turn back to the remnants of the old order; their gains and position secured.

The petite bourgeoisie — having failed to achieve their ends in the German revolutions — still looked to the working-class to bolster their strength for further revolution. Who would the workers look to in the next revolution? The petite bourgeoisie or themselves?

Institutions and Power

Institutions are never neutral. Political parties, companies, churches, schools, media outlets –  they are created out of the interests of certain classes or sections of classes and find their form and function based on the mode of production of production and the social relations that arise from it. Institutions built by the bourgeoisie serve their class interests — reproducing the social relationship, the wage laborers’ subordination to the holder of capital.

Take, for example, Northeastern University’s cooperation with ICE. Universities are institutions that make a pretense of neutrality — talking about academic freedom and the specialness of campus life, and, indeed, a Northeastern spokeswoman said, “Efforts to restrict which federal agencies a faculty member can approach for research funding are antithetical to academic freedom.” It is obviously ridiculous that any association with ICE could be neutral or a matter of academic freedom. The University aligns itself with a particularly brutal governmental institution because it is a capitalist institution and it is in the interests of capital to create an oppressed underclass of laborers.

Marx warned against the working-class being drawn into the institutions of other classes. He believed that ending capitalism, socializing property, and putting the productive forces of society toward the benefits of society were where the working class’s true interests lay. To accomplish these ends, workers had to build their own power independent from other classes.

Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.

That isn’t to say they would be unable to, at times, make common cause with other classes. Democracy and basic freedoms that made open organizing possible did not exist in the German states in 1850. Marx felt that the workers could cooperate on narrow lines, “[the worker’s party] cooperates with [the petite bourgeoise’s party] against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.” But that they must always maintain their independence and not be draw into the institutions of opposing classes, even in the face of appeals to unity of the democratic opposition:

At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented.

Workers, rather than being content with small wins whenever democracy was advanced or the power of capital curtailed, need to keep pushing for the victories to go further. One revolution in one aspect of society’s organization is not enough, they must keep the revolution going until they have won completely. Workers could only keep the revolutionary spirit going by being organized independently from other classes, building their own consciousness instead of taking it from capitalist institutions.

But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

What Are We Building?

So what kind of institution are we building with our participation in the DSA? We are not yet organically of the working-class; we lack a base of support among working-class people such that we could claim to the speak for them. DSA isn’t yet a space for working-class people, as a class, to raise their consciousness and talk about their interests and positions.

We also lack independence from other class interests to establish a workers’ party. We should be very familiar with the calls for unity with petite bourgeoisie politicians and calls to work with the Democratic Party or other progressive groups rather than attempting to build our own institutions.

If we want to overcome these limitations, and really engage in a process of party building, we have to start by grounding our understanding of our situation in materialism. Recognizing that we are situated in a historical moment of class struggle, we have to examine what the class interests are at work in each task we pick up as an organization. We create a collective understanding of what these interests are, through study, rigorous debate, and democratic internal processes.

From there, we can move beyond our reflexive organizational alignment with progressive and liberal interests to establish independence as an organization. With a shared materialist understanding of these interests, what classes they seek to advance, we can understand how to engage with them strategically — when to ally with when they want to overthrow and oppose when they want to secure their position.

We should be building a working-class party. A party that advances only the interests of the working-class that is social revolution. We can’t simply decide to create this party wholecloth, but, by engaging in work that challenges the existing power of capital and by demonstrating a commitment to the interests of working-people above those of small business owners, labor bureaucrats, and other petite bourgeois elements that have historically made up the DSA, we can start the work of building “…a center and nucleus of workers’ associations.” Building independent, organized power should be criteria we evaluate our work by. Building a new workers party should be our end goal.

A Case for Safe Staffing Limits

Baystate Franklin nurses mount second strike at Greenfield hospital in 2017

Katie J. & Brad B.

The fight for health justice in the United States is gaining momentum, including rapid take-up of single-payer healthcare as a basic premise of left political platforms and as a rallying point for resistance to the gratuitous inequality of our economic system. Alongside wealth redistribution, health redistribution has become increasingly central to leftist visions for a just world.

However, the fight will not be easy, nor will it be won be overnight. While a majority of Americans support such demands and a Medicare For All Caucus is emerging in Congress, our corporate- and Republican-controlled government has stymied the most egalitarian proposals.

For these reasons, the Healthcare Working Group of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America agreed unanimously in June to endorse the Patient Safety Act, which establishes nurse-to-patient limits across different fields of care. In emergency rooms, for instance, one nurse could be assigned no more than five patients. It will be Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot in 2018. We understood our endorsement as one component of a broader strategy for achieving health justice, bookended on one side by our mutual aid project to relieve the ravages of medical debt in local communities, and on the other by our continued support for a national single-payer healthcare program.

The Patient Safety Act could be brushed aside as a reformist reform. Its success would not directly call into question the entire system of for-profit medicine in the United States. But to disregard the fight for staffing limitations on these grounds would do a disservice to the workers, particularly organized nurses, struggling to make better care a reality. It would also understate the implications of a possible triumph.

Nurses in the United States face some of the most difficult, often brutal, working conditions in the country. A spate of recent articles have laid out the basic dilemma: salaries have risen marginally, but nurses in the United States are more and more overworked, which has resulted in immense burnout and lower quality of care. Cost-cutting at hospitals and an emphasis on maximizing the extraction of surplus value wherever possible have led to reductions in staffing, which has in turn shifted the psychic burden of care onto fewer and fewer individuals. This occurs alongside the violence and disrespect that nurses experience daily. Public health scholar Jason Silverstein put it bluntly: “We’re working nurses to death.”

This situation must change. America’s nurses have, for many decades, represented one of the most powerful voices of the working class. They have been at the forefront of left politics, particularly the fight for an egalitarian healthcare system. Recently, nurses in Vermont went on strike to demand a model of care that emphasizes patients rather than executive compensation. [] One of their demands was reasonable patient limitations. The Patient Safety Act would represent an important victory for organized labor against the corporate care industry, particularly at a time when labor more broadly is threatened by right-wing politics and union-busting.

Tellingly, opposition to the Patient Safety Act has been led by wealthy hospitals, executives, and a powerful medical lobby. A campaign of disinformation — both in Massachusetts and in other states where staffing limits have come up for debate — has spread apocalyptic claims about the dangers to patient safety and about exorbitant costs. These groups emphasize fear over phrases like “government mandates” and “top-down control,” claims that have long served as bogeymen against left interventions. In some situations, they have resorted to rhetorical blackmail, threatening that hospitals will leave rather than hire additional staff.

It is not simply that these sorts of arguments have been repeatedly disputed, nor that nurses have made their perspective clear (77% of MA nurses believe they are assigned too many patients, with as many as 36% reporting deaths directly attributable to the problem). It is also the case, as Suzanne Gordon recently argued, that the “cost control” model, with its underlying assumption that profits should determine care, has entrenched our unwieldy and exorbitantly expensive healthcare system. The commodification of health has grown steadily alongside its devaluation. However, a consciously planned system with a more egalitarian distribution of health is possible.

Better care from nurses means better hospital experiences for patients, particularly poor and minority residents who cannot afford expensive hospitals and clinics. Throughout history, it has been a common tactic of the dominant to keep workers just healthy enough to work, but not enough to resist or live comfortably. Nurse staffing limitations would increase personalized care where and when it is needed most, shortening stays, lowering readmissions, and decreasing medical errors. Staffing limitations would ensure rested and supported nurses who respond within minutes, rather than hours, to the blinking of patient call lights. In the most difficult times for many families, this kind of care is critical for healing and well-being.

The campaign by Massachusetts nurses has received support and endorsements from groups across the country (only California currently has a staffing law). One important reason is that victories in the Commonwealth have historically spilled over to successes elsewhere. Success for organized nurses here could galvanize the national movement for safe patient limits.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that health provision in Massachusetts will remain unequal. We live in the shadows of Romneycare, the ultimately conservative reforms that led to the Affordable Care Act. The dream of just healthcare in Massachusetts remains unrealized, medical debt continues to afflict residents, and hospitals place the needs of managers over nurses and patients. That dream will require energy and determination beyond present the battles.

Victory against the forces of corporate care would bolster efforts by working class organizations to transform the structure of American healthcare. It would allow nursing unions, occasionally bogged down in staffing battles, to direct their energy fully toward other struggles. Success in support of the Patient Safety Act would send a strong signal that justice and dignity should determine our health, not the needs of for-profit hospitals and the health insurance industry. And it would strengthen the coalition of left political organizations and unions that is fighting for the most significant transformation of them all: free health care, for all, no matter what.


Bios: Katie is a registered nurse and member of Boston DSA. Brad is co-chair of Boston DSA’s Healthcare Working Group and a PhD candidate in History of Science at Harvard.

The Healthcare Working Group usually meets on the third Monday of the month at 7pm, and any changes will be indicated on our Facebook page

Communism in Hollywood: On the Satire ‘Sorry To Bother You’

by Conor G.

Warning: this essay contains (somewhat vague) spoilers.

In their essay “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” from 1999 [PDF], historians Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch reflect on a peculiar trend in hip-hop: the revolutionary thought of Mao Tse-Tung. The authors show how the lyrics of Boots Riley—frontman and main rapper of the communist Oakland-based group The Coup—restore Mao to the “pantheon of black radical heroes.” Kelley and Esch unfurl the hit opening track of The Coup’s debut 1993 album Kill My Landlord, “Dig It”:

The Coup refers to its members as “the wretched of the earth,” tells listeners to read The Communist Manifesto, and conjures up revolutionary icons such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt. In classical Maoist fashion, the group seizes on Mao’s most famous quote and makes it its own: “We realize that power is nickel-plated.”

Mao, according to Kelley and Esch, “gave black radicals a non-Western model of Marxism that placed greater emphasis on local conditions and historical circumstances than canonical texts.” From the Marxism-Leninism of W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Panther Party, to the revolutionary black nationalism of Harry Haywood and Stokely Carmichael, to the urban rebellions around the Rodney King riots, after which the Bloods and Crips wrote a “Plan For The Reconstruction of Los Angeles,” Maoism flowed as an undercurrent through African-American political movements since the 1949 Chinese Revolution. It extended into the Black Arts Movement, too, especially the poetry and theater of Amiri Baraka.

Baraka articulated ideas on art in a work called Hard Facts, building off of Mao’s own Talks at the Yenan Forum from 1942. (“The first problem is: literature and art for whom?” Mao asked. “This problem was solved long ago by Marxists, especially by Lenin. As far back as 1905 Lenin pointed out emphatically that our literature and art should ‘serve the millions and tens of millions of working people.'”) Rebuking cultural nationalism, Baraka urged artists to “jettison petty bourgeois attitudes and learn from the people, taking ideas and experiences and reformulating them through Marxism-Leninism.” By exposing the bullshit, conveying everyday struggle, and laying bare class exploitation through dialectical analysis—only then can artists convey a revolutionary art that serves the people.

The Hard Facts pamphlet, published in 1975, includes a prime example by Baraka—a poem called “A New Reality is better than a New Movie”:


to survive with no money in a money world, of making the boss

100,000 for every 200


you get, and then having his brother get you for the rent, and if

you want to buy the car


helped build, your down payment paid for it, the rest goes to buy

his old lady a foam


rhinestone set of boobies for special occasions when kissinger

drunkenly fumbles with her blouse, forgetting himself.

If you don’t like it, what you gonna do about it.


Rockefeller is your vice president and yo’
  mama don’t wear no drawers.

Kelley and Esch conclude that Maoism—as it flourished in the United States between the 60s until Mao’s death in 1976—was on the decline (save for a few peculiar references in 90s pop culture, like The Coup). That historical trend has not changed, at least in the US context—save for a few promising formations such as Serve The People-Los Angeles and the Maoist Communist Group based in NYC. That’s what makes the release of Sorry To Bother You, a radical satire written and directed by Riley of The Coup, such a pleasant surprise. Riley takes the pastiche style and politics of “Dig It” (which Boots has since described as too on-the-nose), and infuses it into one of the funniest, most original, and empowering stories about militant organizing.

Boots Riley spent years hustling to get this movie made. It was, as the New York Times observed, a kind of “infiltration.” (Someone joked on Twitter that the Times profile of Riley was probably the paper’s first positive portrayal of a communist.) Riley hadn’t made a movie before but wrote a script in 2012, and shopped it around until it got the attention of liberals like the actors David Cross and Patton Oswald and the producer Forrest Whittaker. From there it got the approval and financial backing of the indie cinema circuit, including Dave Eggers and Sundance executives—and the Annapurna production company1 has been pushing a wide release. It’s now playing in 1,050 theaters.

As science fiction, Sorry To Bother You offers viewers a new movie and a new reality. It stars Lakeith Stanfied—the wiry actor who memorably uttered the title phrase in Jordan Peele’s Get Out—as Cassius Green, a telemarketer who climbs the corporate ladder by mastering an inner White Voice, overdubbed by Cross. The joke never gets old. Halfway through the movie, Cassius and his manager (played by Omari Hardwick using Oswalt’s whiny White Voice), stand in a Kendall Square-style open office (“White Voice at all times here!”) discussing the sale of slave labor. In the universe of Sorry To Bother You, the contradictions of black capitalism are a dark joke and ever-present theme.

Omari Hardwick plays “Mr. _______” with the help of Patton Oswalt

Like Robin D.G. Kelley himself, Boots Riley seems to has pivoted, somewhat, from a hard materialism towards Surrealism, “a body of political thought that recognizes that oppression is often rooted in capitalism, but that unleashing the imagination and being able to see beyond one’s immediate circumstances is a big part of being free.” What better venue than blockbuster science fiction, then, to explore the darkness of US capitalism in the era of Trump and Bezos? Riley’s imagined Oakland is fictional, but not unbelievable: conditions are only somewhat exaggerated, so that when a CEO named Steve Lift—the main villain, played brilliantly by real-life multi-millionaire Armie Hammer doing a mix of Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, and the neoliberal gene hacker George Church—tells Cassius of his plan to mutate manual laborers at his worker detention sites into a submissive, subhuman species, it doesn’t seem all that far off. “This isn’t irrational!” Lift cries, when Cassius protests. Given the history of race-making among imperial states, he’s not wrong.

The real star of the movie is Tessa Thompson, who plays Cassius’s girlfriend, a radical installation artist and secret member of the underground black-bloc style group (and lowkey protagonists of the film), Left Eye.2 Her name is Detroit, and she is the steadiest and most vocal anti-capitalist of the film—speaking plainly about how U.S. imperialism was built on the enslavement of Africans, while Cassius, tired after a long day at work, listens but ultimately just wants to get high. Detroit, like Cassius, is guilty of using her own White Voice (Lily James’s effete British accent) to sell art, but she is unwavering in her worldview.

Detroit features in one of the film’s “plays within a play”; one of the more complicated and funny scenes includes a piece of her performance art, where she stands nearly naked, except for underwear made out of black rubber gloves, and tells her audience to throw bullet casings, cell phones, and water balloons full of sheep’s blood at her while she recites lines (in her White Voice) from the kung-fu movie The Last Dragon. It’s a play on fluxus art of the 1960s—something like a gorier, anti-imperialist version of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), meant to shed light on exploitation in the Congo—but Cassius, like a lot of us, doesn’t get it, seeing it only as masochism (self-humiliation is a pervasive theme in Riley’s portrayal of capitalism, as Khury Petersen-Smith has pointed out) and tries to stop the performance mid-way. Detroit becomes increasingly impatient with Cassius, who at this point has sold out—lured to the top of the telemarketing chain as a so-called Power Caller.

It’s at this juncture that both characters seem confused, in their own ways, as representative members of the petty bourgeoisie. They are specialists and artisans who, in various ways, constantly fluctuate between struggle and the enticements of the capitalist class.

Citations from “Black Like Mao” by Kelley and Esch, 1999.

Steven Yeun plays Squeeze, one of the steadiest and most loyal comrades in the film. We learn he’s a “salt,” a professional organizer who goes from workplace to workplace organizing fights against bosses and spreading political education about the struggle. He appreciates Left Eye, but is not a member like Detroit is; his preferred strategy is trade unionism. He organizes a work stoppage among the lowest-paid employees of the telemarketing company, which culminates in a weeks-long battle outside the office and, finally, clashes with police.

It’s in these scenes that we see the clues of Boots Riley’s radical message, himself as an artist exploring the limits of trade unionism: in the moments when police start swinging the billy clubs, the cinematographic style switches from one of mirages, overdubs, and animations, towards a rough, documentary-style realism. Suddenly, this is no longer satire or science fiction. It is the reality of working-class Oakland.

For all its plot twists and surreal imagery, Sorry to Bother You has a straight-forward political message about black capitalism, identity, labor, masculinity, gentrification, the police state, and, above all, race. It’s important to note that in the Sorry to Bother You universe, there are no major white heroes. “Whiteness” itself is a myth, a socially-constructed American Dream, the fantasy of the neutral, upwardly mobile, and carefree middle class. “White Voice is what white people think they’re supposed to sound like,” says Cassius’s co-worker Langston, named in an homage to the communist poet Langston Hughes, perhaps, and played by Danny Glover.

“The whole movie deals with performance,” Riley has said. “The idea that race, and its definitions, are mostly performed.” Where it is certainly not performed is among the proletariat: for the mutant underclass, race becomes not just “the modality in which class is lived,” per the Stuart Hall maxim, but a stomach-churning, embodied fact. Under capitalism, Riley reminds us, white supremacy is not merely the justification of exploitation—by identifying non-white groups as lesser or sub-human—but the very engine of its existence.

One of the final and most indelible moments in the film comes after when Cassius Green—whose politics are, at best, ambivalent and contradictory—tumbles out from the world of the bourgeoisie (after a clarifying and horrifying moment, when a crowd of rich white people demand that Cassius raps, just because he’s black, chanting: “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!”). He’s thrust into the back of a police van, after being knocked out by a cop. Day turns into night. He wakes up and gazes outward, seeing a surprising and fantastical display: comrades from the newly-formed mutant underclass successfully beating back the riot officers. Squeeze’s crew has disappeared, outside the frame.

The political insight here—that “the withholding of labor,” as Boots Riley likes to say, and the militancy of violent rebellions are both necessary in the mass struggle—is reiterated in the final moments of the film. Same struggle, same fight.

As a communist, Riley rebukes both reformism (Cassius refers to Martin Luther King, off hand, as a “fake leader”) and also left adventurism—the performance of radicalism without connection to the masses—throughout the film, often in subtle and funny ways. Detroit and Left Eye make political art that is illegible to the public. Cassius, early in the film, finds himself the star of a viral video when, while crossing the picket line, he’s hit on the head with a can of soda (the meme is an homage to Riley’s old protest tactics as an organizer in college). The publicity gives him a platform to go on television to urge a wide audience: “Call your Senators!” he cries. But nobody’s listening and nothing’s changing. “People know that won’t work,” Squeeze concludes.

But will Squeeze’s tactics work? In perhaps the most biting line in the film, Cassius, during an argument with Detroit, shouts: “What’s Squeeze gonna do about fucking slave labor?” Trade unionism, it seems, doesn’t make much of an alternative to electoralism.3

In an interview with LA Times, Boots Riley expanded on this political stance. Asked whether this is “a system you’d ever take part in by running for office,” he replied, “No,” since the seat of power is among “the 1%” and “not in the elected office.” Riley elaborates: “The ruling class was afraid of an actual movement, perhaps a revolutionary movement happening, and because of that, we’ve got the New Deal… So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections, because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle.”

In the fight for international proletarian revolution—against white supremacy—elections may be fruitless and the labor movement may have “lost its bite,” to quote a song by The Coup. But, Riley urges viewers, we have to start somewhere. If just because the sun will one day explode.

1Important to say that Annapurna is owned by Megan Ellison, daughter of Larry Ellison (Oracle co-founder and third-richest man in the US), and she produced the CIA propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty. Clearly some compromises were made during the production of this film. One of the tougher, unresolved questions for socialist viewers is: How much is Boots Riley using his own White Voice to make the movie amenable to a mainstream audience?

2As a background note, Boots Riley portrays anarchism in an interesting way throughout the film. Left Eye follows tactics of rioting, destruction of property, and art (converting, in one memorable example, a billboard for a mega-corporation into the famous Huey Newton throne photograph). Detroit herself could be an anarchist (it’s unclear). But same time, Cassius’s direct supervisor and manager—one of the most laughable characters in the film—has an anarchist symbol tattooed on his neck.

3When I asked some Maoist comrades what they thought of Sorry to Bother You, they went further, rejecting the film as “communist” especially because of its ambivalent portrayal of trade unionism: “Capitalism itself contains the premises for a fraction of the working class to constitute itself as a revolutionary class, organized in its Party. To be a revolutionary class is (1) to gain mastery of the social process of knowing the society of which the masses are victims; (2) to organize itself for the continuous destruction of that society in stages. The key historical premise for the construction of the Party is the appearance of permanent worker organizations—trade unions—which, in their very first historical phase (the 19th century) are able to participate in the subjective, political identity of the working class. However, trade unions are only a historical premise, entirely distinct from the Party itself, and today they are nothing more than a simple bourgeois instrument of incorporation that divides the working class from politics (i.e., the question of power and the state). Trade unionism is a bourgeois trend in the working class. As Maoists, we must combat it—and all the more fiercely because of the illusions it sows among the working people… The bourgeoisie, as a political class, can only be defined as the political force that is opposed, in an antagonistic and protracted manner, to the revolution. This definition is something other than defining it as ‘bosses’ from whom one can ‘withhold one’s labor.'”

I Got Arrested and So Can You

Police in front of the South Bay dentention facility

By Joey Peters

On June 30th, massive demonstrations erupted across the nation in hundreds of cities. Demonstrators were protesting the inhumane actions of the Trump administration and its treatment of undocumented immigrants, kidnapping children, sending them to concentration camps and holding them hostage. Even for an evil and corrupt government, this has been a particularly depraved course of action.

In Boston there was a massive march from Government Center to the State House. Thousands of people clogged the streets downtown. A few hours later there was another demonstration, this one organized by Cosecha, a grassroots immigrant rights group. It began with a rally by the Mass Ave Orange Line Station and was followed by a march to the South Bay Detention Center. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a contract with ICE to house immigration detainees in a few county jails, and this was one of them. The police must have figured out our destination because by the time we reached South Bay, dozens of prison guards surrounded the main entrance to the building. They were decked out in full armor and wielded billy clubs.  

Twenty of the marchers broke off and placed ourselves in front of the guards, with the hope of blockading entrance to the building. From there the rest of the marches began a rally. Undocumented immigrants told their stories, of why they left Brazil or Guatemala and why they came to America. They talked about their loved ones and the pain that our nation’s influence elsewhere has had, and the pain we inflict on  them here. There was chanting. There was singing. The inmates at the facility wrote messages in toothpaste on their windows.

After a couple hours the police were fed up. They arrested us and whisked us off to jail.

Twenty of us offered ourselves up for the civil disobedience part of the rally—the prison blockade. We had very different reasons, but I think all of them basically came down to a desire to fight injustice and build a better world. We were brought into the protest through different paths. For me, the call went out among the Direct Action, De-escalation and Security committee from Boston DSA. The call was kind of vague, but by reading between the lines it seemed to be some kind of ICE blockade situation, and the risk of arrest was explicitly explained as being extremely high.

I’m a very privileged person. I’m a cisgendered, straight white male. In most situations I’m just given default respect for no other reason than the the privilege afforded to me because of these identities. Once it was pointed out to me, it became impossible not to see. Since then I met and married a Mexican woman, and now there’s this huge wing of my family that gets treated differently from how I do. When I think about everything my little nieces and nephews have to deal with, I am filled with deep moral sickness. So when the call came out from some comrades to participate in civil disobedience with Cosecha I couldn’t justify not going along with it.

When the time came to arrest us they did it fairly slowly. One by one they stood us up and zip-tied our hands, then led us to one of two vans, one for the people the police assigned as male and the other for who the police assigned as female. The van they placed the people they assigned as male had ample room to move and the air conditioning was functional. I note this because the van they placed the people assigned as female in did not have air conditioning. To me this was pretty galling because the people assigned as male were all young and able bodied. I would have been more than happy to sit in a hot van for the half hour or so it took to arrest all of us separately, especially when you realize that a significant portion of the people assigned as female in our  group were of advanced age or had other physical issues.

Ultimately they took us to separate jails. The protesters they assigned as male went to the Roxbury police station. I’m not sure where the arrestees assigned as female went. The judgments of the police weren’t perfect, though (big shock).

Once at the jail the police placed most of the arrestees assigned as male  in a holding cell. They took one of us for processing, but it took very long. One of the other arrestees assigned as male could kind of poke his head into the opening and see what they were doing, but he couldn’t really see much. Later on, from conversations with the arrestee who was processed first, I learned that because they don’t identify as male, but were taken with the arrestees otherwise assigned as male, the corrections officers didn’t really know what to do with them. They were groped by the corrections officers andgenerally mistreated. The process ended up taking over an hour.

In that time one of the other arrestees assigned as male started to have issues with their zip cuffs. Their arm was held in a painful position. We as a group communicated to the guards that they should process him next, just to get him out of the zip cuffs. But they continued to struggle with the first prisoner’s identity for a very long time. Meanwhile the other arrestees assigned as male muddled through and tried to keep our spirits high. And when they finally came to get the next prisoner it was me. In retrospect they seemed to have processed us in order based on our ages, and I being the oldest got picked first.

The process of getting processed wasn’t too bad for me. Given that I’m a privileged white male, I didn’t really have any issues. I just had to give the guards information about myself and try to get everything done with as soon as possible. Eventually I was led off to the smaller holding cells. There was a toilet, a little water fountain, an intercom style phone and a concrete bench. There were strange stains all over the place and the floor was very sticky.

For the longest time I just laid on the bench. Mainly I was thinking about this, about communicating this experience to others, and how easily it had thus far gone for me. The elephant in that particular room is that I’m extremely privileged and didn’t have a criminal record, so my experiences with the criminal punishment system are extremely biased. So here I’ve tried to emphasize the problems other people had in the same experience, but obviously could not capture all of what they were thinking or experiencing. I also thought about Rakem Balogan, a Black Lives Matter activist in Texas who was jailed for seven months, not even for civil disobedience, just posts on Facebook. Posts that pale in comparison to the memes I post on Twitter all day every day.

Every half hour or so a new arrestee was brought into the smaller holding cells. Next after me was the person with the injured arm. All of us were processed after maybe another hour and a half.

Gradually we started yelling to each other through the cells, making jokes and trying to keep our spirits up. One of the guards told us that the bail bondsman was on his way. One of us called the jail support set up for us by Cosecha and heard that the arrestees assigned as female had been released (we later learned this was not quite correct, but some of them were already making their way out as early as 10:30pm.

The bail bondsman arrived. The National Lawyers Guild had explained the likely process of what would happen to us and told us it was a good idea to carry forty dollars in cash into the protest. Their suggestion was dead on and that’s how much we paid in fees to the bail bondsman. After that I was sent back to my cell.

The others gradually paid their fee to the bail bondsman and were placed back in our cells as well.

By this point it was starting to get late. We were getting kind of loopy. The water from the fountain was probably not the best and the bench was sure as hell not comfortable.

Finally the guard came and got me. She gave me some things to sign and told me to appear at Roxbury District Courthouse at 9:00am Monday. This jibed with what the guy from the National Lawyers Guild had told us.

And then they released me, sent me out the back door and told me my fan club was waiting around front. So I hobbled around the corner was was met with a huge swarm of people from jail support. It was almost overwhelming and their happiness and relief kind of made me feel ashamed. Like, I don’t deserve any special recognition. I did a thing that I considered to be the bare minimum that someone in my position could do. I would have felt very bad if I had an opportunity to lend my time and privilege to a worthy cause and I had not done it.

But they had pizza and candy and my cell phone. It was around 1:30 in the morning.

I led the prison support folks to the back door they let me out from and one by one the other arrestees followed me out. Once everyone was out various people from jail support drove us back to our houses.

As I understand it, the arrestees assigned as female didn’t have it quite so nice. First of all, the other facility was aggressively cold. They had brought along sweaters because they expected that, but since it was a 90+ degree day they weren’t wearing them when they were arrested. I chalk that one up to the institutional sexism thing where buildings air conditioning systems are calibrated for men, who are comfortable at lower temperatures for some reason.

Second, there were a hell of a lot more of them, so it took longer to process them all. The fingerprint scanning machines that the BPD use aren’t calibrated for repeated use, so the corrections officers struggled to get good scans. One of the arrestees assigned as female was of advanced age and one of her fingers wouldn’t scan on the machine, come hell or high water. Eventually they had to give up and take a high resolution photo of the finger.

The next most important thing was that several of the arrestees assigned as female had extenuating circumstances, such as chronic diseases, advanced age (as noted above), they were nursing mothers and other such things. In particular the nursing mother began to get very dehydrated. The other arrestees there advocated for her and repeatedly asked for water on her behalf. The corrections officers explained that they didn’t have any cups. The jailsupport people outside were waiting with bottles of water and paper cups, but the corrections officers refused to accommodate the arrestees. One of the corrections officers even bought a drink from a vending machine and drank it themselves. Eventually they were talked into taking a small care package from the jail support people waiting outside to the prisoners, but of the items jail support said they gave to the corrections officers, only a few made their way to the arrestees.

And when the arrestees assigned as female were moved to individual detention cells their water fountains didn’t actually work, to add insult to Injury.

The final indignity that they suffered was that they were released in a slow, staggered manner. It probably took a half hour to release all the other arrestees identified as male after me. The first arrestee identified as female was released around 10:30pm, but the process dragged out much longer with the final arrestee being released around 3:30am.

But eventually we did all make it out that night.

Our arraignment hearing was scheduled for Monday and we needed to be at the Roxbuxy District Courthouse at 9:00am. Our attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild were present and kept us aware of the goings on.We filled out our probation paperwork to check in, but in an interesting twist our case hadn’t been put on the schedule yet. Around this time, a few DSA members working with the Court Watch program arrived and we all went up to our court room together. After watching a couple minor disputes one of our attorneys took us aside for a conference. None of the paperwork for our case had been sent up from the police districts. We twiddled our thumbs for a little bit. Around 11:00 am our attorneys told us that the Boston police had written up our reports wrong, so they had to rewrite them and that would take around an hour. Hopefully they would be fixed and sent back over before the court’s lunch recess.

There were a few decisions to be made, specifically about how to conduct our case. We could bite and fight and scratch, a process that would drag out for a year at a minimum, or we could accept some kind of plea from the district attorney, likely something to convert our charges into a ticketable offense. Our lawyers went over a few scenarios they had seen play out.

There was still a good amount of time that would likely pass before the paperwork was processed, so we went off to have our lunch. By the time we returned our proper paperwork was being faxed over, one person at a time. They Boston Police dragged out the process as long as possible, and the court ended up recessing for lunch in the meanwhile. After a couple sets of paperwork were sent over we could surmise that charges we might be facing—trespassing and disorderly conduct, which jibed with our intake paperwork from our arrests.

As a group we ended up congregated in the hall. As the lunch recess neared its end one of our attorneys arrived for a conference. The district attorney’s office had offered to divert our cases. Not being an attorney myself I can’t fully explain the details. Basically, there’s an option in Massachusetts courts to divert minor cases into different educational programs to prevent further legal violations.

The one caveat with this situation is that a diversion program doesn’t really exist for civil disobedience, and my suspicion is that the purpose behind this was specifically to avoid making it into a huge knock down drag out legal battle that will make a liberal state look bad for prosecuting grandmas for the devious crime of protesting children being sent to concentration camps.

Long story short, our attorneys talked the D.A. down from putting us into this fictional program for three months and instead for one. We decided to roll with that and we made our way back into the court.

After the lunch recess the court heard a couple arraignments and bail cases before we were finally called up. Our attorneys laid out in plain terms what we were protesting and why.

We were disgusted with the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and we could no longer sit back and do nothing. We were making a moral choice to stand up to injustice and we put ourselves in potential harm’s way to do this. The judge accepted it, and we were free.

Now, we still have the specter of a trespassing charge and disorderly conduct hanging over our heads, but for the most part we’ve been prevented from facing harsher consequences.

All told I lost about twelve hours of my life and about forty dollars in bail fees. This isn’t a terrible price to pay for what I feel is the fight for justice. In retrospect I wish the protest had been better publicized, that there was a bigger media eye on grandmas being dragged away in chains. I wish we accomplished more.

But we did do something and I feel that’s a salve against the injustices of the world. The last few weeks have been particularly hard for me. Normally I’m extremely dispassionate and detached, but even I was shaken by the pictures and audio of children in pain, not just because of Trump himself, but by the bestial, monstrous fascist system that created him and brought him to power. Even pissing in the wind against that hurricane of hate feels powerful.

There will be more opportunities to fight for justice in the future. Cosecha and other organizers are building toward a protest at the end of this month. I’m not sure what form it will take, but I’ll be there in some capacity.

I’ve got to fight for justice because I won’t face the same opposition that Rakem Balogan has for merely posting “fuck the police” memes on Facebook. I won’t be thrown into solitary confinement for months on end, because of the privilege I have.

If you’re a comfortable, privileged person, if the injustices of the world make you sick and you feel like there’s no hope, then pay attention. Pay attention to DSA and Cosecha and find other organizations you can help. I feel that it’s important for those least likely to face the hell fury of the carceral state to stand up and use our privilege, to directly interact with the injustices of our society. Put ourselves in danger.

Things are not getting better yet. Soon there will be more opportunities for civil disobedience. We may be soon fighting for abortion doctors or union activists. There is going to be more danger in the short term and one way you can prepare is with this sort of civil disobedience action.

* * *

Joey Peters is a writer, cartoonist, beauty contest champion. You can follow his work at

Marx was Right, A Pamphlet

Marx was Right

The following is the text and a downloadable pdf of a pamphlet illustrating basic Marxist concepts. It’s provided by Boston PEWG for anyone use, copy, or distribute. Download it Here (PDF).

Who was Marx?

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the city of Trier in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. He studied law and philosophy as a young adult, but spent most of his life engaged in revolutionary activity. He moved all over Europe, living in France, Belgium, and what is now Germany before finally settling in London. He was frequently harassed and stalked by reactionary governments and often lived under an assumed name.

With his lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels, he helped organize first the League of Communists, for whom they published The Communist Manifesto, and later the International Workingman’s Association, also known as the First International. Marx also wrote for the New York Tribune and was influential on the early development of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Towards the end of his life Marx turned his attention towards a more organized study of political economy, attempting to understand the exact nature of the capitalist system. This study produced his most influential work, Capital. He died in London in 1883.

Labor and Capitalism

Along with contemporary political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx understood human labor as the basis for the value of commodities.

Capitalism is a system of production characterized by the pervasive production of commodities for exchange. Commodities are goods produced for exchange rather than other requirements like feudal tithes.

This system allows for the exploitation of surplus value, paying workers less for their labor than the value of the labor in the goods they produce, by the capitalist (or bourgeois) class by driving all production into commodity production. Capitalists seek to commodify new markets, often through state or state-sanctioned violence, via colonization and the displacement of traditional modes of production. Deprived of other means to sustain themselves, people must sell their labor to capitalists and be alienated from the product of labor.

Capitalism is, at its root, a system of the application of violence to ensure the product of human labor benefits a particular class of people rather than humanity as a whole.

Historical Materialism

Marx arrived at these conclusions about the nature of labor and capital’s relationship through the application of a philosophy his collaborator Frederick Engels would later term historical materialism. Marx saw people’s participation in processes of production as the fundamental factor in their lives. As people have always worked in conjunction with others, these processes of production are social processes. From the relationships formed in these social processes come human politics, arts, and culture. These, in turn, influence how people organize themselves to produce.

This relationship is often referred to as the base and superstructure, where the base is the mode (or process) of social production people are organized around and the superstructure is the political organization and ideology of society.

Marx also understood that human society and modes of production are in constant flux. He believed change was driven by the struggle between classes of people as contradictions in the mode of production developed. He saw the end of the feudal period in Europe as an example of this. As wealth poured in from the exploitation of indigenous peoples and African slaves in the Americas, it lead to the creation of a new class, the capitalist class, from merchants, guild leaders, and parts of the old aristocracy who were engaged in commodity trade and production. This capitalist class reshaped the laws and customs of the continent, replacing the old idea of property based on title and lineage with a new one based on purchase and ownership.

While witnessing the industrial revolution sweeping through Europe, Marx saw a similar change happening. Previously isolated peasant farmers were being forced off the land and into factories that grew increasingly larger each year. A new system of socialized production was emerging where a new class, the working class, cooperated together to produce society’s material needs on a previously unheard-of scale.

The contradiction between this socialized production and the private ownership of the factories, which allowed the capitalists to extract surplus value from workers, is now the driver of change in society. The people engaged in socialized labor, the working class, are now the subjects of history and, by acting as a class, have the ability to abolish private ownership and end the use of their labor for purely private gain.

Organizing for Action

A tenet of historical materialism is that our social practice can drive the course of history. Marx believed that the contradictions of capitalist production would push workers to organize together, but also that that self-organization would not necessarily be enough to abolish the existing system.

Socialists have to position themselves on the leading edge of  the worker’s movement to promote class consciousness among working people. In order to abolish capitalism, we have to work together as a class acting for  the interests of the working class and those interests alone. Socialists have a duty to make sure their practice includes the entirety of the working class regardless of race, gender, ability, or nation.

As Marx and Engels ended the Manifesto:

“Workers of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!’

Further Reading

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

Frederick Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.



What Do We Want The Future of DSA To Look Like?

By Claudia B. and Hannah K.

We’re writing this because of a recent incident in our local that has demoralized us as young organizers and made us question if there is even space for us in the broader culture of DSA.

According to our bylaws, YDSA chairs in the area are ex officio members of the Boston DSA Steering Committee. A similar measure is in the sample bylaws that national DSA gives local chapters (“Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapters within the geographic area defined by a DSA Chapter may affiliate as a Branch of that Chapter, in which case the local YDSA chapter may send a representative to the Chapter Steering Committee.”) But members of our local steering committee recently brought forth an amendment that seeks to remove our voting privileges as ex officio steering committee members––voting privileges that are inherent to ex officio status in Robert’s Rules of Order.

This amendment was brought forth as a surprise to us and to many on our local steering committee, who were not consulted on the amendment’s existence before it was sent out to our entire general membership. This suggests that this was done not out of a need to clarify the language of the bylaw, but out of another impulse entirely. And this impulse is not specific to this specific circumstance, but rather part of a larger attitude within DSA we’ve both noticed and been disturbed by.

Like most current DSA members, we joined in the wake of the 2016 election; the terrifying consequences of the Trump administration and the failure of our institutions to meaningfully respond to them convinced us to embrace a more radical politics. When we joined DSA, it seemed natural for us to start a YDSA chapter at our own college, Boston University. We believe in the importance of organizing our own communities, and decided to start with the most obvious one.

Starting a YDSA chapter is not an easy task. We had to build a base of members with no support from our school and only some support from national. We spent hours writing a constitution for our organization and hours on the phone with our local student activities office, which obstructed us at every turn in becoming an official student organization. In the face of this, and while managing our personal and academic lives, we earned national recognition and recognition from our school. We built a base of well-organized, educated campus activists who we collaborate with in pursuit of making BU a better university, and we’re proud of our chapter. We built a coalition with our local graduate student union (many of whom are DSA members), and we helped to organize a rally against sexual harassment, which one of our co-chairs spoke at. We started a one-of-a-kind labor campaign at BU to organize around the working conditions of our unpaid tour guides that received broad support across campus, with around a thousand people signing on to our demands. This is a campaign we hope can set a precedent for other YDSA chapters. And we did this through planning and facilitating meetings every single week without fail.

While we are very proud to have founded one of two active YDSA chapters in Boston, we are also proud to be committed members of our local. We’ve attended almost every monthly general meeting in the past year (which is more than some of our local steering committee members can say) and have consistently volunteered to help run our general meetings as well. One of us is the co-chair of our Socialist Feminist Working Group and is helping to put together a comprehensive child watch program in Boston DSA. We are dedicated members of multiple committees, teams, and working groups––including helping out with our Court Watch and Donate Your Vote coalition initiatives, which we believe to particularly important. We’ve helped to write and edit materials for our chapter, and we have even had our YDSA campaign featured as one of the inaugural posts of the Political Education Working Group blog. Our YDSA members have noticed this, and we’ve gone from having none of our YDSA chapter’s members consistently attend local events to seeing our members engage as the full DSA members they are.

But––particularly recently––we have often felt like the careful and deliberate nature of the organizing we’ve done both in our own YDSA chapter and in the local has been ignored and belittled.

In DSA as a whole, it is common to hear jokes about “dictatorship of the teens” and “the youth” and about how we want to “guillotine the olds”––and we won’t deny that they are sometimes funny! But we feel that these jokes go beyond tweets into a pervasive devaluation of the work younger organizers do. We have felt patronized and fetishized by many older members, who often treat us like children in need of protection—or, more commonly, unruly teenagers who need to develop further in order to be taken seriously. One recalls Joe Schwartz, former DSA NPC member, who when interviewed for The Nation described radicalism among those younger than him: “Now it’s hip to say you’re a Marxist-Leninist. People like the hammer and sickle; they like to wear a red star, have the posters in their bedroom.” As a result, we both have felt uncomfortable sharing our views in meetings or going to social events. We feel we have not been taken seriously, and as a result the perspective we bring to organizing has been frequently ignored.

When James Baldwin was once interviewed by the younger black radical activist Hakim Jamal, he was asked about his relationship to H. Rap Brown, a younger activist who was the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during a brief alliance with Black Panthers on their part. Baldwin responded, “Well, Rap and I are very different people. I’m much older than Rap, and Rap may know a lot that I don’t know.” So the question stands: what do we know that others might not? Our age is often seen as being a weakness, or at least a point of vulnerability. And it can be those things–there are a lot of things younger organizers haven’t learned or experienced. But there are also things we have learned or experienced that those older might not have––or if they have experienced them, their experience of them might be very different from ours.

And we can’t help but feel that in many cases the reason our voices have been devalued is not because of our age necessarily, but because of what comes with our age: our conception of politics. Radicalism coupled with youth is often confused for purity politics, or for a lack of seriousness. It is not seen as being the product of a world that often feels so painful and narrow to us, a world where the future has narrowed into a point so small that in order to inhabit it, one feels like they’re forced to pass through the eye of a needle. Neither are our politics seen as one of the few things that can, as we argue, break the despair of the moment we live in. Instead, what we believe in is often written off as naiveté. We would like to counter that perception as being instead our instinctive reaction to a world we are not yet desensitized to.

The fundamental instinct to shrink from radicalism and dismiss it as naiveté is based in the belief in a capitalist, fixed reality that many younger organizers have fought to overcome. We have both been extremely fortunate to meet and organize with some wonderful people in DSA––people who have become lifelong friends, and, yes, mentors in some cases. But what makes those relationships so valuable is not that we have learned so much from them, but that they are open to learning from us. We’ve had valuable discussions with them about the “teen” rhetoric that bothered us in the past, and they listened to what we had to say and changed the way they spoke about youth organizing, and we think that this is a model for how inter-generational issues should be handled in DSA as a whole.

YDSA seeks to connect younger organizers with the national infrastructure of DSA. As it stands, being a member of YDSA automatically makes one a member of DSA. (In fact, technically all DSA members up to the age 31 can be a member of YDSA!) This makes perfect sense as our goal is to build socialism and this goal persists regardless of enrollment status. Yet, we have found in our experience, people are eager to differentiate these two groups, and, as a result create two different classes of members in tension with each other. YDSA organizing is seen to be separate from DSA local organizing, and local organizing is seen to be separate from campus activism. But if we wish to build a collective society without hierarchies, we need to encourage participation of different voices in different projects while never forgetting how these seemingly disparate things intersect.

Organizing students is organizing future workers, future caretakers, and future DSA local members all over the country; organizing a campus is also fundamentally organizing within your local community.

If what we seek is to build a better world, we must recognize that cannot happen with the divisions currently present in DSA across the country. The bylaw amendment that seeks to disenfranchise us is emblematic of the attitudes that seek to diminish the reach of younger organizers. It is inherently neoliberal to value older organizers over new ones because that behavior is founded in the idea that experience accrued over time is a kind of capital with the power to disenfranchise and devalue those younger. Perhaps there is something youthful about an ideology that seeks to produce something new––and while that is frightening––it is what we have signed up for as members of a socialist organization, and the voices and ideas of young organizers are essential to building socialism. DSA is an organization that prides itself on believing “a better world is possible.” What is the realm of the possible if not the future, and what is the future without young organizers coming up in the ranks? DSA’s future is dependent on its ability to re-evaluate its relationship to those coming up in its ranks. If it does not, the better world we all seek by organizing in DSA, will, we fear, become impossible.

This essay originally appeared on Medium.

Psychology for Socialists, Part 2

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 2: Know your comrade
In Part 1, I wrote about how we misunderstand our own minds. Here, I’m going to look at how we misunderstand our comrades.

The Boston DSA code of conduct instructs us to “assume good faith” from our comrades. To be blunt, there have been a number of times when that hasn’t happened. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, and being a psychologist, I’m going to argue that our disagreements and strife are not (usually) out of any intent or malice, or at least they don’t start that way.

Why do we so often fall into arguments and infighting? It breaks down into a few specific issues. Some don’t require explanation: Living under capitalism sucks, we’re all busy people, we get stressed and overwhelmed. Others are more subtle, and require us to re-examine our thinking and how we interact with each other. The two issues I’m going to point out here are a somewhat controversial idea from social psychology called “attribution errors” and a toxic drive to “save face.”

I. Attribution
Imagine you greet someone with “Good morning!” and they say “Fuck off.” You’re going to dislike that person. Now imagine, as you are having this exchange, that the person is having a broken arm set by a paramedic after tumbling down a hillside and hitting two yellowjacket nests on the way. You could maybe find it in your heart to forgive them for being a bit unfriendly.

A more talented writer could string together some analogy here about tumbling down the invisible hillside of life, but the basic idea is that we cannot always see why someone might act the way they do. This is at the core of one of the more contentious debates in social psychology. For many years, social psychologists argued that people were prone to something called the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. The “error” part of the FAE is that people tend to attribute the behavior of others to internal or “dispositional” factors about the other person, who they were, when in fact the behaviors are due to external “situational” factors. The error, in other words, would be thinking that the person in our example was an asshole, rather than attributing their response to the fact that they had just gone through an extremely unpleasant experience.

It is the nature of DSA that people have disagreements. It’s part of being a multi-tendency organization. Sometimes those disagreements get heated. It’s easy for a political disagreement to become a personal one. Sometimes that’s intentional. Sometimes it’s because people interpret what people say as reflecting who they are versus how they are at that moment.

The controversial part of the FAE is how often it’s actually an error:[1] Sometimes the attributions to a person’s disposition are fully justified. Nobody denies that people prefer to make dispositional attributions; that’s been a point of agreement in this debate for well over 30 years.[2] The question for researchers is: Do we make dispositional attributions when there are clear situational alternatives? Ultimately, that uncertainty is a part of the problem. We don’t always know when it’s an error and when it’s not.

This uncertainty is even worse when we don’t have any idea about other people’s situations. This is especially the case in online discourse: We don’t have any context for the people we’re talking to, and it’s easy to read the same post in many different ways. When we read something negative, it’s easy to assume that it reflects something intrinsic about the person who posted it. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s someone having a bad day. Sometimes it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. Uncertainty!

Now, let’s consider what it means to assume good faith in your comrades.

To me, it means that, when I see something I read as negative or hostile, I try to make the situational attribution first, especially with people I don’t know well. Whether or not it’s accurate, it is the more generous option. If it keeps happening I will end up deciding that it’s not situational, but it takes some time to tip the scales. To me, assuming good faith means making the default assumption that people aren’t assholes, but that anyone can have a bad day. That means I don’t go into my future interactions with them thinking that they will be the same. In general, I try to avoid attributing hostility to others whenever I reasonably can. This is not easy or simple: From childhood, we find it very easy to attribute hostility to others when they do something we do not like[3], whether they meant it to be hostile or not.

Of course, sometimes it’s us having the bad day. We say things that other people take badly, and then we get defensive. But defend what, exactly? Here, we run into the deeply ingrained problem of saving face.

II. The problem of face
Whether or not it’s accurate, the FAE applies only to our judgments of other people’s actions. When it comes to ourselves, we go almost exactly the other way. Whenever we do something that we’re not proud of, or that we are criticized for, we push the causes onto external factors. We try, as much as possible, to say “that’s not who I am,” and make excuses. Our concept of “who I am,” our self-concept, is complicated and multifaceted. One aspect is referred to by social psychologists as “face,” defined as “the positive aspects of character that a person lays claim to (or is treated as having laid claim to) in a particular interaction.”[4]

We are very protective of “face.” When it is challenged, by our own actions or by what someone else says, we get embarrassed. If you are around people you want to think of you as smart and you try to push a pull door, you feel embarrassed. Most people have a powerful drive to avoid embarrassment. We work very hard to save face.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a good thing. In fact, I think it’s toxic, especially for activist organizations, and even more so for socialists that must ultimately trust each other to accomplish real change.

Let’s take a (minor) recent example from my own interactions with my local DSA chapter. I got into a discussion about a candidate who the chapter was considering talking to and endorsing, who had, as part of their platforms, police body cameras. I hadn’t worked out the intrinsic problems with body cameras (surveillance state, in short), and so I was confused when this got a strong negative reaction from some comrades. When I asked questions about this, I briefly found myself on a platform arguing about whether body cameras were a problem or not.

It took about four comments for me to realize that I was doing it exclusively to avoid being wrong, and for no other reason. So I stopped. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, publicly, that’s what had happened, and found myself trying to make excuses until I forced myself to stop. Eventually I just managed to put together “I didn’t think it through” and left it at that.

This isn’t the event that made me think face is toxic, by the way. I worked that out a while ago. But even with that in mind, I couldn’t stop myself. Saving face is practically reflexive. Maybe more for me than for some people, but research has concluded that saving face is nearly a cultural universal, with some variation in how far people will go to protect someone else’s reputation versus their own.

In any case, my anecdote is just an example of why face is bad. Why couldn’t I just say up front that I hadn’t thought it through? Why is it so difficult to even write about now? Because I hate being embarrassed. Kind of a lot, in fact. If this post makes it to the public eye with all of this intact it’ll be the greatest success I’ve had yet fighting the impulse to save face.

Now let’s think about this in a broader context of our organization: Callouts, arguments, and how people respond to being called out.

Let me start with a very important disclaimer: I’m not talking about callouts for personal harassment or extensive abusive behavior. There are such things as unforgivable actions, real harms that cannot be repaired by simple apologies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. You’re not “saving face” if you’re making excuses for deliberately hurting someone, you’re just an asshole. There is no situational justification for actions that cannot ever be justified. When someone causes real, serious harm, they should admit they’re wrong, but just admitting they’re wrong doesn’t absolve them. Nothing I’m going to say here applies to those kinds of cases.

I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day squabbling an organization like DSA generates. In our chapter we’ve seen public arguments about political education programs, electoral work, technology infrastructure, accessibility options, and the general internal political structure of the chapter. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of any of these issues, but I hope it’s clear that there is a difference between public arguments about these issues and public callouts for extensive individual harassment and abusive behavior. For one, when you’re dealing with what I’ll call “political” callouts (for lack of a better term), there’s some expectation that you will be working with the people involved in the future. That’s the kind of case I’m talking about here.

With that in mind, political callouts are sometimes justified, and sometimes it turns out they are not. However, when people are called out, more often than not the response I see is some kind of self-justification. Sometimes it’s an admission that something isn’t right and a situational excuse, sometimes it’s a doubling-down on the justification for whatever they are being called out on, to the point where they will express pride in it. Either way, the goal is clearly the same: to save face. The most awful forms of this are the non-apology (“I’m sorry you were offended”) and the outright denial.

The intended outcome of (most) callouts is a correction. Saving face doesn’t do that. Most face-saving responses will drag the problem out, or make it worse, or at best ultimately correct the issue but leave some lingering resentment from the parties involved.

What if we didn’t try to save face? What if we fought the impulse to protect our self-image with excuses, and simply said, “I was wrong, and I feel bad about it”? It’s hard to say because it so rarely happens, but personally, I think it would usually work out a lot better for everyone involved. If you are the one making the callout, it would address the issue they wanted addressed. If you are the one being called out, it would feel bad, in the short term. Embarrassing, of course. But, ultimately, if you’ve made someone mad enough to call you out, it would do a lot to repair that relationship, it would let you work together moving forward, and in the context of advocacy, it would help you Do Things That Work.

The above only applies to justified callouts. Sometimes callouts aren’t justified, due to incomplete information, misunderstanding, or just failing to assume good faith. Once you’ve made a callout, in a public sphere, you are committed to something that can become a threat to your face. If you discover that your callout wasn’t justified, what do you do next? Well, one option is to admit you were wrong. The other is to try to save face. The pattern of saving face here is generally to double down, or dial back by half-measures. The end result is the same: It accomplishes nothing except to build acrimony. In making a callout, if we expect those we are calling out not to try to save face, and to admit when they are wrong, we must be willing to do the same if it turns out we were wrong.

There is also a third possible situation, which is less of a callout and more of a straight-up argument: when both sides feel, truly feel, they are justified, not because they are saving face but because they really believe in their actions or their positions. Neither of the above points apply to those cases. This isn’t a call to simply give up your position when challenged. This is a call to examine why you want to defend your position. Is it because you really are justified? Or is it because you want to save face? You will almost always think you are justified, at least at first, but that assumption is part of the impulse to save face, and you shouldn’t simply accept it without questioning it.

My advice? Whenever you call someone out, or are called out, challenge yourself on your position. If you think you’re right, really challenge your own position, really think about why someone might feel justified calling you out on it (or why they would feel justified holding the position you are calling out), and if you still think you’re justified, well, then you might be. If you find your position isn’t as strong as you thought, then maybe it’s time to try not saving face. Even if you can find a situational justification for your behavior, let it go. You can know, for yourself, that it wasn’t “who you are,” but making that excuse doesn’t help anything except your own self-image, and so often sounds like an attempt to avoid responsibility. Making a situational attribution for yourself is a way to save face rather than resolve the concern, and even if you can make that attribution, it doesn’t mean that you should.

The earlier you make that determination, the better. We’re no strangers to chapter or national drama. It ramps up. People get entrenched. Even when one flare-up subsides, it leaves lingering distrust and acrimony, which fuels the next flare-up. If you can save months of arguing and bad feeling by not trying to save face, don’t try to save face.

And as a comrade, make it easier for people to make that decision. Do not hold grudges. If a comrade admits they were simply wrong, respect them for it, and remember the problem of attribution. Embarrassment is just a feeling, but disrespect is a punishment. Even if they admit they did something wrong, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a situational factor behind it. They just don’t want to make excuses, and that is a quality we should appreciate in our comrades. Let me emphasize again, there’s a class of action that this advice does not apply to, and never should, but for most of the arguments and disagreements we have, there’s no need to hold a grudge, and no benefit.

III. Being comradely
The message I’m trying to get across here is not that you have to agree with all of your comrades, or even that you have to like them. The goal here is to treat them, and yourself, fairly. Assume good faith by asking, when someone says something you react negatively to, whether it is a reflection of who they are, or a product of their situation. Be willing to accept when you are wrong, and be willing to accept others when they admit they are wrong. Sectarianism is the death of any activist movement, and sometimes that is built on deliberate strife. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, when it rears its head in DSA I see it as more of a product of failing to assume good faith by the participants, and a desperate need to save face. If we can learn to assume good faith, and if we can be less selfishly attached to our own self-image, we can accomplish more. We can get more done. We can more effectively make the world a better place.

So this is a call to examine yourself and your interactions, to think about what you are attributing to others and what positions you truly need to defend. This is not advice aimed at any one person, but at every member of this organization. Some disagreement will touch all of us sooner or later, and we must all individually be prepared to deal with them in a constructive and comradely way. The common good is greater than any of our egos or our personal dislikes. While we can disagree on valid, principled grounds, we must spare ourselves unnecessary fights, unnecessary drama, and above all unnecessary hostility. Disagreements that start as these simple misunderstandings or mistakes can lead to deliberately hostile actions later. A little hard self-examination now can save a organization-shattering fight later.

[1] Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.
[2] Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is the “fundamental attribution error”? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349.
[3] van Dijk, A., Poorthisu, A. M. G., Thomasse, S., de Castro, B. O. (in press). Does parent-child discussion of peer provocations reduce young children’s hostile attributional bias? Child Development.
[4] Sabini et al. (2001), pg. 2.

Their Dream and Ours: a Review of “The Dream is Lost” and a Path Forward for the Left

Three men standing around a car with signs for the Crusade for Voters

Mike B

The following is a short book summary followed by an analysis. This piece is the opinion of the author only and does not represent the views of any organization to which they belong. 

This piece was originally published on Medium.


Julian Hayter’s invaluable book, The Dream is Lost,  provides the first monograph-length study (excluding several capable works which cover a much longer time period, including Rights for a Season) of the annexation crisis and the events surrounding it since Rutledge M Dennis and John V Moeser’s Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City in 1982. The Dream is Lost, however, also includes additional background that a slim volume like Politics of Annexation did not flesh out, and benefits from decades of hindsight in a way that Moeser and Dennis, writing so soon after the events described, could not.

Cover of Julian Hayter’s The Dream is Lost

Hayter insists that Richmond skipped the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (a notion that would surely surprise quite a few Virginia Union University (VUU) students and East End Neighborhood Association members!) and went straight to (electoral) politics. The Richmond Crusade for Voters, a middle class group, led the charge to the polls. When the Crusade was formed in 1956, the main impediment to Black suffrage was an onerous poll tax. The Crusade fought back by raising funds to pay the poll tax for indigent Richmonders and by going through Black communities on election day with speakers and megaphones exhorting residents to vote and excoriating those who did not. Numbers of registered voters skyrocketed and participation in city elections grew.


But, notes Hayter, “[t]he Crusade may have championed democracy, but it was not organized democratically…its decision-making process was almost entirely in the hands of its middle-class members.” Crusade brass determined for whom members would vote, and the organization’s committee in charge of selecting candidates would release their list of endorsements on the Sunday prior to the election (!), leaving little time for working class members to organize an opposition to the leadership’s slate.

Crusade priorities had initially centered on having Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc for progressive white candidates (be they Democrat or Republican), but, after a strong performance in the 1960 councilmanic election, the Crusade aimed for a more ambitious goal — winning a black majority council (BMC) in the capital of Jim Crow Virginia. In 1964, the Crusade saw its first Black candidate, B.A. “Sonny” Cephas, elected to City Hall along with several white candidates the Crusade had endorsed. After the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the Crusade earned even greater successes, including the election of Henry Marsh, an outspoken civil rights champion, to City Council, along with two other African-Americans. Henry Carwile, a white progressive, joined his Crusade comrades.

Henry L. Marsh III, second from left, during Richmond City Council meeting June 29, 1971. 1971 Times-Dispatch

Political defeats tailed closely behind electoral triumphs. Much of the Black middle and working classes were disgusted when a police review board proposal (already a compromise — the board would consist of zero members elected by the public, five selected by the City Council, and four police officers appointed by the city) was voted down 7–2, with Crusaders Cephas and Mundle siding with the white conservatives against Marsh and Carwile. Richmond Forward, the faction of the white right, rammed through legislation to run a new expressway through Randolph and Oregon Hill, sending residents to overcrowded public housing in East End and Southside. Route 64 had similarly destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood without creating enough public housing to equal or exceed homes destroyed years earlier. It seemed as though too little had changed with Crusaders unable to counter the schemes of the white conservative Council majority.

Sensing the urgency of the Crusade’s plan to achieve a BMC, RF sought to annex portions of Henrico County containing tens of thousands of white voters. After five years (1961–1966) of tussling with Henrico residents, courts, and the Virginia General Assembly, the plan fell through. Richmond Forward’s successor, the Team of Progress, turned its gaze South to Chesterfield.

This plan to dilute the Black vote didn’t go unnoticed. Curtis Holt, a disabled former construction worker who founded a tenant association in Creighton Court, opposed the plan absolutely; the middle class leadership of the Crusade backed annexation, but demanded a switch from at-large Council elections to a ward-based system with enough majority-Black districts to ensure proportional representation. After a tumultuous legal battle that left Holt and some of his poor supporters at odds with the well-to-do Crusade leaders, Richmond annexed some 40,000 white residents of Chesterfield in 1970 (prior to this, the area West of Forest Hill Ave. was not part of the city). Responding to Holt’s charges of voter dilution, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the city from holding new councilmanic elections until it had adopted a ward system. This wasn’t accomplished until 1977, meaning that the 1970 City Council was in power for the better part of a decade without standing for reelection!

In the next election, Crusade candidates swept five out of nine wards. At last, they had won a Black Majority Council. The new Council selected Marsh as the mayor and included newcomer Willie Dell, a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor whose indefatigable anti-poverty activism, razor-sharp intelligence, and straight-talking brand of charisma endeared her to many of East End’s poor. The wind seemed to be at the Crusade’s back. It was not to be.

“The politics of Richmond are now controlled by Afro-Americans, [but its] economics [are] still controlled by white Americans”, lamented Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta (1974-1982, 1990-1994), who sailed to power on a wave of civil rights movement support, only to enact punishing neoliberal measures once in office. The campaign of obstruction and sabotage in Richmond was unrelenting — the press printed screed after screed against Marsh, white residents and white businesses left for the counties, leaving Marsh and his Crusaders with scant funds to rebuild and maintain homes and schools decaying from years of white neglect. Marsh felt he had little choice but to desperately pursue boondoggles to keep capital in Richmond — projects like shopping centers, the Project One disaster that gave Richmond an underutilized convention center on Broad and two overpriced hotels on either side, as well as the crumbling Coliseum, and Kanawha Plaza, the business center just West of Shockoe Slip on Cary with the hideous maritime statue.

White sabotage worked. Marsh failed to deliver an improved standard of living for the

Roy West
Former Richmond Mayor Roy West. C-SPAN

working class, and many well-to-do Black voters were eager to elect a candidate who was able to work more comfortably with the city’s white business establishment to prevent further capital flight. In 1982 the white power structure threw money at Roy West, a Black conservative, running for Willie Dell’s seat. Overspent and awash in invective from the white press, Dell’s working class base in East End was demoralized, but her district also stretched into more prosperous Highland Park, whose middle-class Black voters were anxious to dump Dell’s combative, left-leaning platform in favor of West’s promises to closely work with the white elite. West won, was elected mayor, and proceeded to privilege the desires of the wealthy above the needs of the working poor. The forces of reaction had triumphed.


Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s concept of a “long Civil Rights Movement” has become one of the most influential lenses through which to view twentieth century Black history. Hall contended that many of the roots of the “classical” Civil Rights Movement lay not in events immediately preceding the Brown decision, but can be traced back even further — specifically to the upsurge in Black activism and labor militancy in the 1930s. As Glenda Gilmore, among others, have argued, this means acknowledging the Communist Party USA as an influential institution in the rise of Civil Rights. It wouldn’t take much stretching to fit Richmond into the long Civil Rights narrative. The city was the home to a Communist-influenced union involved in major struggles to weaken the color line in industry and improve wages and conditions for black workers, and Richmond hosted the first headquarters of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Civil Rights organization that would later inspire groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Hayter misses an opportunity to provide a “long Civil Rights” history of Richmond by instead focusing almost exclusively on voting rights and electoralism. This undertaking necessarily involves writing out or minimizing crucial political context at the grassroots level. Where, for instance, does Hayter mention the East End Neighborhood Association, the working class Black group whose uncompromising boycott campaign desegregated more than a few stores? Why is the reference to the Creighton Court Civic Association only in passing as a minor biographical detail of Curtis Holt? By analyzing only electoral politics Hayter neglects the myriad of extra-parliamentary ways the Black freedom struggle that provided the context of the Crusade’s work operated, and that may have provided a different, more effective road to lasting change and real power.

We on the left sometimes exhibit a similar lack of perspicacity when we regard working and oppressed peoples’ power as primarily stemming from their status as voters. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the full humanity and the full capacity of people to remake their world with an array of different tactics and strategies, many of which have a higher batting average than municipal elections.


Holt, Marsh, and other sincere advocates of progressive policies found themselves in a paradoxical situation — at the beginning of their journey, Richmond had a sizeable tax base, but Black residents had no electoral representation; later, Black residents won a majority on the City Council only to see funds (and therefore their ability to substantively support housing, education, and anti-poverty initiatives) massively depleted. Their voters realized this fact and became demoralized and demobilized, and their opponents seized on these failures in order to drive a wedge among Black voters, winning some of the middle class and small business owners to their agenda of neoliberal “reforms.” From Roy West to Wilder, Kaine, Jones, and Stoney, Richmond has seemed to have no alternative.

A socialist perspective can provide us with the tools to see why the representation-vs.-money zero sum game is such a dead end, and the strategy we need to create real and lasting change and break out of this trap. We sometimes refer to elected officials as “people in power” or even refer to winning office as “taking power.” The example of Richmond in the 1960s through 1980s shows this to be sorely mistaken. Elected office represents a position, but the ability to shape the city, sabotage the Black Majority Council with no real resistance, and the ability to make money on the backs of working class Richmonders remained in the hands of the landlords, real estate interests, employers, VCU administration, and businesses. These interests — the capitalist class — still held power, and still will hold power even if we were to get a socialist majority in the next City Council election.

The only way leftwing officeholders can legislate change and keep it is if the power of the capitalist class is already weakened by the building of a working class counterpower outside of the state. The capitalist class in Richmond has amassed tremendous wealth, but they have a huge Achilles Heel — they depend almost totally on workers to generate their profits and to pay them rent, and they need placid social conditions to reap their ill-gotten gains in peace.

Before seeking electoral office, we need to help build a base — a militant, committed, organized, and ever-expanding section of Richmond workers who are able to push for higher wages, better conditions, and an end to harassment and discrimination; neighbors united to push back rent hikes, successfully demand landlords perform needed repairs, and crush our city’s well-oiled gentrification and eviction machines; students, parents, teachers, and staff ready to strike against Jason Kamras[a] and his puppetmaser Thomas Farrell[b] and their plans to bring DC style privatization schemes to Richmond, and against Michael Rao’s[c] quest to colonize more of the city under the banner of VCU; Women, non-binary, and trans people, people of color, and immigrants and their allies prepared to weaken institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression. Even then, capital will defend itself and use capital flight. For this reason, we should never see electoral contests as an end in themselves, even after we have won a base. Rather, winning elected office should be seen a temporary, supporting tactic in a broader strategy for the total overthrow of capitalism.

While our current context is unique in some respects, we have better lodestars to guide us than the electoral work of groups like the Crusade. In 1937, tobacco stemmers (many of whom were Black women) began to rise up against low wages, hazardous conditions, and a rigidly-enforced color line in the industry. Communists like Frances Grandison, Chris Alston, and James E. Jackson met with workers in Rev. Queen’s church on Leigh Street and helped the workers expand their strike wave to other plants. The next several years would see the founding of the Tobacco Stemmers Labor Union (TSLU), a radical, Communist-influenced organization that successfully organized for raised wages and won the 8-hour day in the dark, Satanic tobacco plants of Southside. Just as importantly, they pushed back against the color line in tobacco — for years, white business owners had misclassified challenging work as “unskilled” to justify paying Black workers less than their white counterparts. TSLU managed to reclassify Black workers in some plants as skilled or semi-skilled, narrowing the wage gap against white workers. While automation in tobacco, divide-and-conquer tactics by Richmond’s captains of industry, and co-optation by less radical, more Jim Crow unions would eventually frustrate TSLU and the Richmond Communists, their achievements for the working class were tangible and undeniable. With more foresight, a better analysis of changing industrial conditions, and more stubbornness towards co-optation by the AFL and the Democratic Party, the Communist assault on capitalism and Jim Crow could have lasted longer and reaped even greater gains.

Our movement shouldn’t be dogmatic. Electoral work can play a supporting role to organizing, but must be at most a distant second. We need to make major strides in basebuilding long before we can engage effectively and intelligently in the electoral arena, or else we will find ourselves in the same position as Willie Dell and Henry Marsh — forced to choose between minor legislative victories as the city crumbles, or openly enacting the will of the capitalists. Richmond is far from alone in having progressive politicians reduced to administering harmful neoliberal policies — Communists in France and labor parties in Australia, the UK, and elsewhere have formed governments which have genuflected to capital and cut needed social welfare policies for workers and the poor. Even groups that claim to balance basebuilding outside of elections with running for office too often privilege the latter over the former, as Kali Akuno’s recent criticisms of Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s Democratic mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi make clear.

Hayter’s work ends on a depressing note — for the Richmond left in the 20th century, the decades-long quest for a Black Majority Council was achieved, only for them to realize too late that real power lies elsewhere, and the road to change must take a radically different route. The sun has set on this electoral path to “power,” but armed with our knowledge of the past we can bring a new dawn in Richmond by organizing for power from the ground up.

Sources consulted:

Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis. Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City. Schenkman Books, 1982.

Randolph, Lewis A. and Gayle T. Tate. Rights for a Season: the Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia. University of Tennessee Press, 2003

Julian, Hayter M. The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Love, Richard. “In Defiance of Custom and Tradition: Black Tobacco Workers and Labor Unions in Richmond, Virginia 1937–1941.” Labor History 35, no. 1 (1994)

Cooper, D.B., Ed. “It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend.” March 16, 2018.

Willis, Samantha. “A Leader from Leigh St.” Richmond Magazine. June 28, 2016.

Weaver, Adam. ““Electoral Pursuits Have Veered Us Away”: Kali Akuno on Movement Lessons from Jackson.” Black Rose Anarchist Federation. April 18, 2018.


In this article I attempted to summarize a recent work of scholarship on Richmond and use it to analyze the prospects for electoral work at this current moment. Given these limited aims I left many questions unanswered or even unexamined, including: the relationship between Black conservatives and Richmond’s Civil Rights Movement and the city’s Black population more generally; the role of parties in electoral politics; and how we might concretely begin a radical, basebuilding strategy in Richmond today. I also chose to be brief in explaining the demise of the Communist Party in Richmond, which was concomitant with its fall from influence nationally. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for future research and analysis for Richmond organizers.

I also pushed some of the broader questions of socialist theory to the background, namely: how does the capitalist state function, and how should socialists engage it? My own view is that the state is a machine for the domination of one class by other classes (in our society, it is an instrument of capitalist rule over workers and oppressed people). Merely purchasing a grip on electoral organs of the state, in my opinion, does not greatly change the overall function of the state and does not provide as many opportunities for building working class power or improving material conditions for masses of people as some assume.

So how can socialists use elections? I’m still studying that problem, but my perspective is that we should not have illusions about assuming office and administering capitalism, but rather disrupting its function and undermining its legitimacy. Campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Freedom Vote provide one topic for future study, as does the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in the reactionary tsarist parliament, the Duma.

Though I have tabled those important subjects for inquiry, I hope I have shown that even to social democrats who view use of the electoral organs of the capitalist state as being the end point of the movement that we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can even begin to think of achieving that goal.

[a] Jason Kamras is the new superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.  He was a former Teach for America kid who became a leading quisling of DC school czar Michelle Rhee, attacking teachers and privatizing schools.  He is the highest-paid superintendent in RPS history.)

[b] Thomas Farrell is the CEO of Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Downtown Richmond.  Farrell, who has no children in RPS and no background in education policy, served in the committee to select the new superintendent of the school system.  Farrell made his fellow committee members sign a confidentiality agreement not to divulge details of the superintendent search to the public or even to the school board.)

[c] Michael Rao is the president of Virginia Commonwealth University.  With compensation topping $900,000, Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2016.  While administrative pay is high, VCU’s adjunct faculty and hourly staff make poverty wages, and while VCU continues to raise tuition, its endowment of more than a billion dollars is one of the 100 largest in the world.  Rao has aggressively pursued real estate projects that have contributed to the destruction and gentrification of several Richmond neighborhoods, including Jackson Ward, once the heart of the Black community north of the James River.dream-is-lost.jpg