Nat Weinstein: Memorial and Oral History

Nat Weinstein’s International Viewpoint

Presentation at the June 22, 2014 celebration of Nat Weinstein’s life

By Rod Holt

In keeping with the general theme, I will tell a story about Nat, which relates directly to his international viewpoint and his conviction that the key to understanding society today is to understand the class struggle.

Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989, as you will remember—in fact, we just had the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square debacle where the Chinese sent an unarmed army into Tiananmen Square to disperse the students. It failed to do so. So then they were sent back with arms, and the students agreed to move. There was a dispute about who shot who first, but it turns out that the Chinese government did everything they could to avoid bloodshed but the obvious thing—acceding to the students’ demands. This was a serious confrontation, which the students lost. The question naturally arose as we heard the news in the U.S. was whether the news was accurate. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense that the Chinese army would go in and shoot people asking for democracy. Nevertheless, that was the story from the New York Times and all the other bourgeois press, except from occasional reports from the overseas press, which indicated that the situation was not quite that way.

So, Nat, I and Jim Henle all agreed that what we needed to do was to fly to Tiananmen Square and find out as much as we could first hand of what had gone on. So we did. Two weeks after Tiananmen Square, we landed in the airport outside of Beijing with a translator who came from Seattle who was a brilliant and wonderful person. With our translator—there were four of us. After we recovered from jet lag we went to Tiananmen Square where the marks from the tank track ribs were still in the grass and we had people standing around wearing uniforms carrying AK-47’s or whatever the automatic rifle was at the time, and so it was a very peculiar thing. But, we decided that we would just walk around and we did.

We spent most of the day just walking around. You know, here, on the side of the room, you’ll see a picture of Nat Weinstein shooting pool with Chinese people in the background, and let me try to explain that. As we were just wandering with no specific aim in mind, we came across a construction site where there were hundreds of workers just pretty much in grey working pants and grey shirts, looking like any other worker you’d find on a construction site, except the uniformity of the clothing was surprising. It was lunch hour and we were near this restaurant and these women came out—there were four of them carrying a pool table. They carried it out—they set out two pool tables and they sold food to the workers and to passers by and everybody else as this was going on. So Nat, I and Henle and our translator stopped and we were looking around and the translator went over and asked a couple of people in Chinese, of course, whether we could play pool too. After Nat played a game to warm up, the spectators went and got the local pool ace, urging him to play the American tourist. So Nat then was challenged by the best pool player of all the construction workers and of the neighborhood.

And Nat, of course, couldn’t turn down a challenge, so immediately he was ready to go and you could see by the determined expression on his face that Nat wouldn’t have lost that match for anything whatsoever. And he won, and there was quiet, then a lot of them smiled. At Nat’s suggestion, our translator then asked whether they would be interested in what he had to say since he was the head of a socialist group in America. They were. Shortly thereafter Nat was invited to get up on top of the pool table—I can’t remember if he was wearing his shoes there or not—he got on top of the pool table and gave a speech to the Chinese workers, it being interpreted by our translator who had a loud voice, as did Nat—no PA system.

And the thing I wanted to relate in particular was what Nat talked about. What he tried do was explain that American capitalism wasn’t what it claimed it was, that the Chinese Revolution had accomplished much that the Americans had yet to gain. So Nat compared the situation of the Chinese worker on the one hand with that of the American working class, which he said socialists are trying to move forward. In particular, Nat compared the poverty of our healthcare with theirs, our struggle with unemployment which was almost unknown in China and so forth. The Iron Rice Bowl, incidentally, was still in existence in China—this was 1989, 25 years ago. So, as he worked back and forth on this, he tried to explain simultaneously as a logical consequence, that his viewpoint and the viewpoint of those he represented was to build a class struggle in America to catch up with the Chinese, so to speak, to carry out the revolution in America the way the Chinese have carried out the revolution in 1949. And he received then—I’m abbreviating the whole thing—but he received a lot of smiles, nodding heads and all of that.

The conclusion was that we were met very shortly thereafter—it was about a minute—by three uniformed men one with no insignia but clearly the authority, and the other two carrying AK-47s. They came over to us and they asked for our passports, and, in China, when somebody comes up carrying weapons and asks for your passport you are in trouble. And so we gave them our passports. Then our translator got the leading man off to one side and explained to him, we found out later, that we were rich Americans who had come to look at the construction of the building because we wanted to buy a hotel or an apartment building.

And this argument, this back and forth explanation by our translator actually won the day, and this guy who, although he carried no insignia, was obviously a man of distinction and a superior Chinese military person; at any rate, he relented and then handed us our passports and spoke to our translator in Chinese and they turned around and left, and we left also—very shortly thereafter—beaming. I don’t know how many workers were there—but it was a victory not just for us, but a victory for all the workers. And I think it gives you just an idea of how Nat could do something so remarkable, that he was in touch with the working class even under the strangest and most obscure conditions which we had there, you know, a few blocks from Tiananmen Square.