It Will Be a Great Day When the Navy Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Ship
By Tom Crumpacker
A Collection of Socialist Essays
By Sylvia Weinstein, Socialist Viewpoint Publishing Association, 2005, 358 pp. $25.00
Remember the old saying “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy a ship?” This was one of Sylvia Weinstein’s gems and there are hundreds of others equally perceptive in this collection of her political essays named after the title of her monthly columns which appeared in Socialist Action newspaper from 1984 until the end of 2000. From then on, her columns appeared in Socialist Viewpoint magazine until the very month of her death in August 2001. Fortunately for us, her voice carries on in this book.
Sylvia was a natural essay writer. Like Babe Ruth she hit lots of home runs. Each of her missiles is brief, usually just two or three pages. In the Jonathan Swift tradition, she picks a relevant event of the day (often from media reports), gets right to the essence of the matter, and then by exposing and juxtaposing our ruling class propaganda (as mouthed in the mainstream media) with a dose or two of common sense, she shows how utterly absurd, irrational and damaging to ordinary people this society has become.
Reading Sylvia forces one to comprehend if not agree with Scottish psychiatrist Ronnie D. Laing’s observation back in the sixties, that sane people in this type of society may need to find their respite in the mental hospitals.
It’s disheartening to think about how little progress and much regress our society has made since Sylvia wrote these columns. There are about 190 of them on 350 pages, interspersed with photos of her with her kids and at work in the struggle. These essays are sharp, to the point, often humorous, always provocative, always well researched and documented. They cover the things which bother us the most, the crucial battles of our time, topics like the corruption of our political system, worker exploitation, privacy in reproduction, welfare, poverty, homelessness, social security, peace, civil rights, gender and racial discrimination, children’s needs, public education, health, drugs, ecological crises, imperialism and many, many others.
Each starts with a specific topic in the news, for example, an editorial on Social Security, a court decision on abortion, a TV report on Russian mothers pulling their soldier sons out of Chechnya, a politician’s assertion of the necessity of a “war” against some small Third World country. Then follows some logical analysis of the real problem and its solution.
What is Sylvia’s solution? Change has to come from outside the oligarchic political system we’re now saddled with, which always served only the capitalists and is way too far gone now to be a vehicle for change. It has to be based on people power rather than money power. Most of us are working people, and it’s through grouping together, acting collectively, that we not only protect ourselves from the ravages of capital, but also take control of our own destiny to create a better world.
Instead of voting for the lesser evil of two capitalist candidates, we need to enter the struggle by activism: writing, speaking, demonstrating, striking, sitting in, civil disobedience, direct action, and above all, unity and organization. Whether called a labor or women’s party, the new movement to be capable of real change must be based in the class struggle, made up of workers, and it must include women, people of color, and all others who seek change. When it becomes a mass social movement it will necessarily wield power, and we can argue then about the best ways to use our power, whether within or without our present political system.
Sylvia’s politics are working class politics, the only reality- based politics independent of the capitalist parliamentary system, which Marx and Engels called “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.” She was a true revolutionary, obviously well versed in the Marxist tradition. But you won’t find any of the old 19th century language and theoretical niceties in these essays, nor any dogmatism, reformism, abstraction or ideological posturing. She chose to think and do as Marx thought and did, without speaking in an abstract or academic way. This in my opinion is just the kind of writing we desperately need these days, practical discussion of the real problems now facing us, and the institutions now oppressing us and holding us back. We first have to deconstruct the ridiculous myths of our rulers, which is what Sylvia does best.
After all, class struggle is our key analytical tool not because of its ideological purity, but rather because it explains what is really happening in our society today and points us in the direction of real transformation. In Sylvia’s analytical framework, we see not just some seemingly isolated or unexplainable social injustices, but we also learn how it fits into the larger picture of class struggle and people power. It’s exciting and eye-opening to see seemingly mysterious events and attitudes explained in this way. Not only worker exploitation, but patriarchy, racial discrimination, war, fascism, environmental degradation, almost any serious injustice one can think of.
Sylvia was an active participant in the key struggles of our time, and it’s this experience above all which informs and blesses her writing. As wife, mother then grandmother she was also deeply involved in the labor, women’s liberation, antiwar and civil rights movements. Besides publishing and writing for Socialist Action and Socialist Viewpoint with her husband, she was an effective speaker who talked at meetings, demonstrations, strikes, pickets and other public venues.
She worked in the civil rights movement in Brooklyn and in the Brooklyn branch of the NAACP. She helped organize Fidel Castro’s initial appearances at United Nations and in Harlem and was always a strong supporter of the Cuban revolution. She was one of the more militant voices in the feminist movement, organizing for Planned Parenthood, abortion rights, childcare and the defense of clinics under physical assault by “right to lifers.” In San Francisco she was a leader in the progressive wing of NOW and she once ran for Board of Education featuring an ongoing campaign for childcare for working mothers. For the first 38 years of her political life she was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and worked full time for 35 of those years as a fulltimer in the business office of its newspaper, The Militant.
The first essay is a biographical speech Sylvia gave at the University of Maryland in 1993. She grew up in a working class family in Kentucky during the depression. Unemployment caused her parents to split and she was sent to Kentucky where she was born to be raised primarily by her maternal grandmother.
Workers were organizing in CIO industrial unions and by age ten she and her grandmother were standing in the picket lines of a major strike. She married in 1944 and had two children. Her husband, a merchant seaman during the war, had learned about socialism from a shipmate, and she immediately saw how it “explained everything.” She says that when in his first letter her husband started with “At last I have found the truth” she initially feared he had become a Jehovah’s Witness.
She became involved in women’s liberation when in 1959 the Boston police were angered at women violating Massachusetts law by buying diaphragms in Connecticut. They threatened to confiscate them on return—but gave up the confiscation idea when the women countered by saying they were wearing them.
It was during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war struggles that women became more assertive concerning their rights, not just concerning reproduction but in many important ways. I suspect Sylvia contributed significantly to the new boldness.
Living in San Francisco she worked on a major class action abortion case before Roe v. Wade, organized women unionists, and was a leader in the local and national Equal Rights Amendment campaign which eventually failed, she thought, because of too much trust placed in the corrupt political system.
Because many of these columns use personal history and stories to make their points, another reason to read the book is to get a genuine activist’s perspective of life in the late 20th century in this absurd and tragic empire we call the USA. In this respect, it’s a memoir of a life well lived.