You say you want a revolution?
The Marxist School of Sacramento is an anachronism whose time could yet come
The revolution will not be televised, but it does come with a course catalog. Sisters and brothers interested in seeking a more dialectical approach to knowledge need only stop by the Marxist School of Sacramento for a crash course in righteous ideology, sprinkled with a dose of Chairman Mao know-how and revolutionary derring-do.
Founded in 2000, the school offers courses and lectures encompassing a wide variety of topics from the Marxist perspective. On Tuesday of last week, SN&R dropped by Sacramento’s Sierra 2 Center, where the evening’s topic was author-activist Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Marxist Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. The book prompted an erudite historical discussion ranging from the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society to the production models employed in 1930s Germany.
Carl Pinkston led the talk; also sitting in were Leon Lefson and Ellen Schwartz, both members of the school’s board of directors.
“The only time it seems to me that there was a genuine threat to the capitalist ruling class was in the ’30s,” said Lefson, as discussion turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a concession to workers that, according to the group, saved the rich from revolution.
A subsequent resurgence of Marxist interest in the 1960s and 1970s was cut short by internecine squabbling, the end of the Vietnam-era draft and the reign of Ronald Reagan. “After that, the Communist Party wasn’t a beacon for anybody,” Pinkston said.
“If the [Vietnam] war had gone on for a couple more years, more people would’ve listened to the politics [of Marxism],” figured Schwartz. “The anti-war movement ended when the war ended.”
Other recent lectures at the Marxist School have taken on more contemporary themes: Last month, there was “Shopping at Wal-Mart: A Marxist Critique of Globalization,” while another lecture pondered, “What Keeps Capitalism Going?”
The classes are free, so those who attend don’t have to hassle with payment or getting caught in a credit-card dragnet by the Man.
Actually, being more marginalized these days may have its advantages: Even at a time when the Department of Homeland Security is taking on the role of CoIntelPro, Pinkston suggested that today’s level of paranoia is not what it used to be. Back in the 1970s, he recalled, there was a multitude of Marxist organizations with blooming membership rolls, and institutional paranoia ran high. This, he said, resulted in some fairly elaborate safety precautions.
“I was recruited this way,” said Pinkston. “I would be told to go to a pay phone. Then I would be ordered to drive to a park and receive instructions there.”
But along with that paranoia went a much greater measure of popularity. Pinkston recalled a seminar in San Francisco, circa 1979, that debated whether or not the Soviet Union was Marxist or imperialist. It drew 1,000 people and went into considerable detail on the economic and structural modeling of the system.
Such fervent passion over the fine points of the institutions that rule us, or the ones we hope to put in place, simply doesn’t exist today, he added.
Except, of course, at the Sierra 2 Center on Tuesday evenings.
When asked about the goal of the group’s teachings, Schwartz responded without hesitation: “We think people are ready to formulate a society based on something more than greed.”
At age 50, Pinkston whimsically admits to missing the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when he came into his own activism as a member of the New Voice, a group through which he received his Marxist training. He worked part time for the state of California as a student assistant until 1981, and since then has worked as an accountant, but not before a humorously failed attempt to join the proletariat.
At the time, activists in the left hoped to get blue-collar jobs to spread the revolution and provide an ideological seeding mechanism among the proletariat.
“I think I was the only one that couldn’t get a job in a factory. I went to Campbell’s, Libby. I worked for the state. They were like, “Why do you want to work for Campbell’s soup?!”
Pinkston’s commitment to spreading ideology was based on a concept of working part time and putting activism at a premium; he is also the co-founder of the Freedom Bound Center, a Sacramento organization that works to help at-risk communities organize and grasp the tenets of Marxism to improve their lives. The goal is to tap into the youth, particularly young people of color, to create the kind of widespread movement that today’s political climate simply does not have, he explained.
“They’re living in a different time,” Pinkston said, adding that the Reagan years forged a “defensive” mentality that externalized the country’s threats, turning attention away from domestic problems. “The civil-rights movement kicked off a massive movement that kept on going until the end of the Vietnam War. It propelled young people to take up leadership, create their own organizations. They weren’t waiting around for things to happen. A lot of us could live on part-time income and do political work. Or others lived together, where one person brought income in and everyone else did political work.”
It’s a tough proposition to sell to today’s youth, figures Pinkston. Not only is there no bling-bling upside, but also the educational and ideological hurdles required to become a transformational activist aren’t suited to short attention spans. Back in the day, one would need to memorize the Little Red Book and know its contents by rote to be considered for membership in some of the more strident groups, but even a watered-down version of that is a hard sell to a generation raised on the fast-moving synaptic overdrive of television and instant gratification.
Pinkston is not optimistic about the political horizon, believing as he does that the current administration is the beginning of an ultra-right dominion that eventually will lead to a dictatorship. “There are no mass movements today. There are camps and struggles, but there’s no key strategic vision for a new society,” he mused. “We were not doing it because we were pissed off. We were trying to transform the world.”