Street, radio, and university professor, Part I

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Wed Mar 7 08:51:42 MST 2001

[ bounced form unsubbed  "William M. Mandel" <wmmmandel at>,
  Part I ]

I have just read a sad message, "Farewell to Academe," by a social
science professor of 32 years experience. He is retiring because he
finds students "increasingly disinterested" and having "a kind of
almost wilful ignorance that has to be experienced to be believed."
Administrators are "cynical" and even leftist professors are
"perpetual conference goers and vita builders, intent on making names
for themselves and impressing their more orthodox colleagues."

In January I applied to present, wrote and sent off, a paper to a
panel titled "Connecting Classroom, Community, and Social Movements"
at this year's convention of the American Sociological
Association. The very title suggests an attempt to confront the
problems the retiring professor describes. My paper was a description
of how I personally dealt with them, in a manner that made me feel

My offer was turned down (I have presented many papers, and all have
later been published.) The nature of the rejection suggests that the
professor in charge fits the description of those the quoted retiring
academic complains about. I think that what I proposed to say will be
of interest to the very diverse group of people to whom I'm sending
this, not only the professors on my list. Here it is:


by William Mandel

My father was a Communist of the pro-Soviet variety. In consequence,
at age ten, in 1927, I joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist
children's organization, whose activities have just been described in
a Columbia University Press book, RAISING REDS, by Paul Mishler of the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A fascinating sub-chapter is
titled: "Socialist Education, Proletarian Education, and the Communist
Children's Movement."

The entire focus of our activity was on connecting classroom,
community, and social movements. I do not recall any courses in our
own organization, but remember that in the summer camp I attended,
with the supposedly Indian-sounding name, Wochica, contracted from
"Workers Children's Camp," I learned labor songs of the IWW --
Industrial Workers of the World -- from one of its members who, like
its prime leader, Big Bill Haywood, had turned Communist.

In the city, we were very strongly involved in school affairs.
Overcrowding was horrendous in my junior high school of 3,500
children.  The first issue of the monthly paper put out by our Young
Pioneer troop carried a cover cartoon with kids popping out of the
windows, from under the roof, and even from the chimney. There were
morning and afternoon shifts, plus another starting at noon for first
and second graders.  Although the building was six stories high and a
block long, no room was found for a buffet or cafeteria. Kids usually
brought lunches from home and ate seated on the floor of the
gymnasium, taking in their food along with the odor of sweat.

The Pioneers began issuing leaflets demanding that a new school be
built nearby to relieve the overcrowding, and also that a cafeteria be
opened at my P.S. 61. Young Pioneers' meetings were often devoted to a
serious discussion of what student self-government should be like. It
was decided to demand the right to vote for seventh-graders, in the
student government the principal had established,-- in addition to the
eighth and ninth-graders he had endowed with the franchise, to launch
a third party with a platform (those the principal had established had
none), and to nominate candidates. A founding convention was held in
the school auditorium, and the new party was given the name,
Progressive. It put forth a three-plank platform: 1) open a cafeteria;
2) reduce overcrowding, and 3) bring that about by building an
annex. A coalition was formed with the Tempo Party, which gladly
endorsed the platform. Of the seven candidates on the joint slate,
five won. [For these details I draw upon the memoir of our leader,
Harry Eisman, KRASNYE GALSTUKI V STRANE DOLLARA (Red Neckerchiefs in
the Land of the Dollar), Moscow, 1966. Born in Moldavia, then under
the Romanian monarchy, orphaned at seven, and an immigrant at nine, he
was deported for sticking a safety-pin into the rump of a mounted
policeman's horse ridden into a demonstration against the Boy Scouts,
which we regarded as militaristic. A mass campaign won him the right
to emigrate to the Soviet Union, whose Young Pioneers had invited
him. He fought in the infantry as a Red Army volunteer all through
World War II, including the Battle of Stalingrad, and died in the
relatively moderate Brezhnev era.]

The school principal realized that his legislature had changed from a
body designed perhaps to give pupils a taste for politics into one
acting effectively in the interests of workingclass children, so he
dissolved it and set up an appointive honor society instead.

To me, the most important aspect of Young Pioneer activities was
assistance to strikes, and to strikers' families and children. This
faced me with the first important psychological decision of my life,
the first involving courage. A coal miners' strike in 1927 lasted a
full year, and the workers and their families literally starved before
finally giving in. The Young Pioneers participated in collecting food,
clothing, and money. I don't know whether my fear of participating had
anything to do with possible physical danger: being roughed up by
police or whoever. They were more probably the fears of an
intellectual kid whose life had been spent going to school,
roller-skating and playing ball games, reading and listening to his
father talk. Now I had to go out and put my body where my heart was.

I do know that nothing that I have done since took as much guts as
forcing myself, at age ten, to take one of the collection cans into
the New York subway on a Saturday morning, and spend that full day and
all the next day going from car to car calling out, "Help the starving
miners' children!"

As the weekend progressed, it seemed that my arm would fall off. No
one on the miners' side could afford to give paper money -- $25 a week
was then the average workingperson's wage -- so the can, like an
oversize beer can with cardboard side, got full and fuller with
coins. I could have burst with pride when it was broken open to count
the contents when I brought it in. $18.03. That number has stayed with
me for a lifetime. It is equivalent to a couple of hundred dollars in
purchasing power today.


My own first organized teaching came at age 17. I had been one of 21
students expelled from CCNY for opposition to ROTC (some student
issues never change). In my case it was also for asking a devastating
question of the college president at a compulsory convocation about
his bringing police on campus to disperse, including by the use of
beatings, an indoor meeting of a recognized student club. It was
seeking to combat the institution of fees in this hitherto free
college at the very bottom of the Great Depression. The Workers'
School, a Communist Party institution teaching Marxist economics,
Leninist politics, dialectical materialist philosophy, and the history
of the labor movement, offered scholarships to all of the expellees
interested in studying there. A measure of the mood of the day is that
enrollment, 3,000, was as large as that of CCNY in that time when
higher education was virtually the exclusive province of the
well-to-do but for a tiny handful of free institutions.

I took up the offer, and gobbled up everything offered, stimulated by
the fact that I had studied Marx' Capital as required reading in the
compulsory Political Economy course at Moscow University. I had
entered it on a biochemistry track immediately after high-school
graduation, when my father took the family to the Soviet Union,
offering his civil engineering skills in the cause of "building
socialism." That is where I acquired the knowledge of Russian that
opened the door to my later career as a Sovietologist.

I also got a very practical look at the relationship between
education, community, and social movements. In the first place, my
fellow-students were, with but a single exception, affirmative-action
people, a Soviet invention. That year, 1932, was the first in which
the recently established system of Workers' Departments, essentially
prep schools for working people, free with living expenses paid and
housing provided, turned out enough graduates so the government could
carry out in practice its program of providing that class with higher
education. In addition to the affirmative-action entrants on the basis
of class, there were those to whom admission was granted on grounds of
ethnicity. Although, in proportion to population, there should have
been one Jew in the class, in fact there were six, to make up for the
discrimination they had suffered under the quota system of Tsarist
times. It was the very provision in the internal passport identifying
all Soviet citizens by ethnicity that got them in.

Another aspect of education there that accords with our subject-matter
today is that all students who were members of the Young Communist
League were required to participate in after-school teaching of
literacy to the new workingclass in the plants mushrooming in and
around Moscow during this penultimate year of the First Five-Year
Plan. This meant piling into open trucks, driving an hour or so to the
building site, teaching for an hour or two, being driven back, then to
their incredibly overcrowded dormitories to hit the books. That was
much more difficult for them than for me despite the language
problem. I was, so to speak, a professional student, while for them
this was a new endeavor.

The notion of the relationship between education and social movement
was very high in their minds. Before returning to the United States, I
got the head of the Young Communist League group in a corner. I said
to him that at the rate he and his fellow students were going in that
extremely hungry year, they'd probably die of tuberculosis by the time
they were forty, and what was the point? He looked at me as though I
were out of my mind, and answered: "We're building socialism." To him
that was no slogan. He had been a shepherd in his native Armenia, a
country that had suffered genocide at Turkish hands in his own
lifetime (they were all in their twenties). He had been able to
advance to being an urban construction worker and had been selected to
go to the finest Soviet university.  If he completed it successfully,
he had a position waiting for him on the faculty of a higher education
institution in Armenia then under construction.

In a very different context, I witnessed the difference between
socialization in the American and Canadian school systems on the one
hand, and the Soviet on the other. The number of kids native to
English because their parents had taken jobs in Moscow was enough for
an Anglo-American School to have been established. The pupils were
given a winter vacation at a camp outside the city. I was asked to
accompany them because, although I was of the same age as they, I had
the prestige of being a university student. Upon arrival, we found
skis stacked behind a door. The toughest kids grabbed what they
thought were the best, carved their initials in them, and announced
they would knock the daylights out of anyone else who used them. The
Soviet counselors proceeded to teach the idea of public property, and
actually got the Americans and Canadians (I don't recall any British)
to ostracize the gang leaders.

It goes without saying that the education offered by the New York
Workers School corrresponded in purpose and emphasis exactly to the
title and subtitle of our session here today. At the end of the year
during which I took a full load of its courses, the director invited
me in and asked if I'd like to teach there. I certainly did. He asked
my age and I said nineteen, which would have made me the youngest
teacher by far. Actually I was seventeen, but I didn't want to be
turned down.  I wanted desperately to be a good teacher, and judging
by student attendance records, I was the second best in a faculty of
dozens. There were no required educational techniques. I employed what
I later learned to be the Socratic method. I didn't know of its

I wanted people to think for themselves and I was quite sure of my
convictions. I believed that if I developed a sequence of discussion
questions, then the students' daily lives -- they were primarily
workers, although one of mine was Gale Sondergaard, who later became a
prominent actress in Hollywood and early TV before blacklisting --
plus our reading materials, followed by simple deduction would produce
what I regarded as the right answer. From that I would then proceed to
my next prepared question.

The students were all older than I, some old enough to be my parents,
except for one who was only six weeks my senior. I know her age
because I'm married to her.

I am grateful that I have never been an academic snob in any
context. I was the only teacher in that Workers' School who did not
regard it as beneath his dignity to go downstairs to the pressroom of
the Communist DAILY WORKER after my evening's teaching was over, pick
up the biggest armload I could tote, about fifty, of the next
morning's paper, and go out to Union Square to hawk it. Most often it
was the passing East Side working people who bought
them. Evening-session students at Washington Irving High School, up
the block on Irving Place, would come by for a paper. I learned to
develop the most saleable shouting headline from whatever was on the
front page. Sixty years later, when I found homeless people in
Berkeley unsuccessful in hawking their monthly paper at movie
theaters, I reached back into memory to teach them how to find catchy
headline slogans to shout.

I taught for only a year at the New York Workers' School, for I was
then asked to go to Cleveland to run the Communist bookstore and build
the circulation of the paper in Ohio. I also taught at its Workers'
School, where the students were chiefly Slavic. When employed, they
worked in steel mills, machine-tool-manufacturing enterprises, and
White Truck and Fisher Body of the auto industry.

Next I was transferred to Akron, then world center of the tire
industry, to head its Young Communist League. There it had about 100
members, primarily Black, because of the prestige Communists had won
both in fighting for welfare, non-existent before the Great
Depression, in physically putting back the furniture of evicted
families, in leading the first major sit-down strike in American
history (preceding the well-known one in Flint, Michigan), but above
all for insisting that the new Rubber Workers' Union not only accept
African-Americans as equals but also demand their advancement out of
the heaviest and dirtiest jobs. The YCL could pay no salary, and I
earned my living as a teacher on WPA. This was the famous Roosevelt
program of made work that, as is obvious from my employment, did more
than build bridges, parks, and public buildings. I taught current
events. As previously, I found that teaching people with experience in
the world of work, attending just because they were interested, as no
credits were involved, was vastly more challenging than my later
experience in higher education, where my students fundamentally knew
nothing of life.

Here the relationship between education, community, and social
movement involved a significant event in the sphere of race. A
statewide conference of WPA teachers was held. We sang the
Star-Spangled Banner, and then the few African-American teachers
struck up the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The
few whites who knew it, as I did from my Communist upbringing, also
sang. A few more whites, seeing us stand, rose to their feet. The next
day a white fellow-teacher whom I had liked said, in our teachers'
room between classes: "Hell, where I come from we just rolled 'em over
and shoved it in." There is a connection between that memory and the
fact that, although I am white, The Black Scholar chose to review my
autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER, in a recent issue, and that I was
asked to be the Martin Luther King Day speaker by an African-American
woman this past January in a nearly all-white city on the West Coast.

World War II brought a sudden and drastic change in my relationship to
teaching. This country, raised to believe that if that war occurred,
it would be against godless communism, found itself allied with the
godless communists, and learned that it didn't know the most basic
things of a practical nature needed to make that alliance work: such
things as the carrying capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railroad for
Lend-Lease shipments, the tonnage of ships the ports of Vladivostok
and Murmansk and Arkhangelsk could accomodate, the degree to which
those ports did or didn't ice up, when, and for how long.  I had found
a job in New York in 1940 at the tiny private American Russian
Institute that was the country's only research center in that
field. There was no CIA, there was one person as a Russian Unit in the
Commerce Department, and not over a dozen who had worked at our Moscow
Embassy since Roosevelt extended recognition to the USSR sixteen years
after its establishment). I very quickly became the know-it-all in the
field, publishing in that institute's quarterly learned journal and a
weekly bulletin established when Hitler attacked the USSR.

In 1943 I was asked to teach in the Army Specialized Training Program
at Syracuse University. The original idea was for me to head the
program, but when they discovered I was 26 and had no higher education
(one semester at Moscow; one year at CCNY before expulsion, after
which I had refused to make the apology that would have reinstated
me), they put it in the hands of a professor who bragged that he had
been teaching Russian history for ten years without ever having
visited the place.

At Syracuse I hung with the students, some Black, in the dives they
could afford, and hope I succeeded in giving them some notion of what
that society was trying to accomplish.

In 1943 I had one of the most rewarding teaching experiences in my
life. The previous year I had been invited to Toronto to speak at a
stupendous Congress of Canadian-Soviet Friendship, along with Norbert
Wiener, founder of information theory, then world-famous Arctic
explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and Edgar Snow, newsman who was
literally a household name for his RED STAR OVER CHINA. Probably
because of the impression I left there, also on a nationwide CBC
broadcast, and at a Canadian Army camp where I addressed men my own
age who would soon be sent to be massacred in the Dieppe raid on the
Nazi-held French coast, I was invited to be, for a week, the "faculty"
at the Workers' Education Association Labor College, sponsored by
official Canadian organized labor. Afterward I wrote my parents,
referring to a particularly warm reception by a workingclass folkdance
festival crowd in San Francisco: "My only other such experience was a
class literally bursting into tears...after I had had them for a whole

There was still a lot of British formality in Canada's culture then,
and for the young worker-students to find their professor to be
someone who was not only in their own age range, but who knew every
labor and pop song, was a tireless and improvising social dancer, and
played a fair game of softball, apparently had had an emotional
impact. So, doubtless, was the fact that I placed no limit of time or
place upon answering their questions. My then very recent experiences
as a workingman and participant in labor struggles must have given my
talks a relevance to them that might not have come from someone with
an academic approach.

[ end Part I ]

More information about the Marxism mailing list