Quinn Brisben Speech For the Socialist Party USA

erik toren cuauhtemocrey at yahoo.com
Wed May 30 09:29:46 MDT 2001

Hola Camaradas!:

Sorry for the long posting.  Thought it would be an
interesting speech from Quinn Brisben to repost here.

por el socialismo!,
erik toren
pharr, tx

(We take a break from our usual format of press
releases and statements
to bring you a delightful speech by former Socialist
candidate Quinn Brisben, delivered yesterday, May
24th, in Madison, WI.
The Socialist Party will be honoring Quinn at its 2001
Convention this in  Denver this October.)

It is a great pleasure to be in Madison again, despite
the extortionate
price the politically protected fossil fuel oligopoly
made me pay to
get here. I first called myself a socialist here,
increased my
knowledge of socialism in its various forms in earnest
conversations in
the Union Rathskeller, and absorbed something of
history and theories
of society from such learned persons as Howard K.
Beale, Marshall
Clinard, Merle Curti, Hans Gerth, and William Appleman
Williams. I also
learned something of the life of a worker from my
bosses and fellow
workers at the Hires Root Beer Bottling Company and
Checker Cab
Company. My wife and I spent the first four years of
our marriage here
and our first child was born here. Every time I visit
here I reaffirm
the insight of Marx and Engels into the constant
transformation and
self-destruction of the capitalist system. Every house
in which I lived,
most of the theaters, shops, and restaurants where I
was a familiar, and
the wing of Madison General Hospital where my daughter
was born have all
been destroyed. I am happy to say that the friendships
I made here and
the mutual interests that sustained them have survived

One of the most important of those interests is
socialism. My comrade
Robert Kimbrough has told me that I am to define
socialism, tell why I
am a socialist, and why we need a Socialist Party in
2001, and take a
maximum of thirty minutes to do these things before
retiring to
thunderous applause.

My good Philadelphia comrade Donald F. Busky in his
recent book
Democratic Socialism says that all of the many forms
of socialism may
be defined as movements for the social ownership and
control of the
economy. This agrees tolerably well with the
definition in the Oxford
English Dictionary and most reference works. Ownership
means little
without control. My experience as owner of stocks in
an Individual
Retirement Account has taught me that the vast
majority of so-called
owners are powerless. I am regularly asked to vote on
boards of
directors and on stockholder initiatives to reduce
executive salaries,
disinvest in fascist states, stop spewing poison, etc.
I have yet to
succeed in ousting a single board member, not even Dan
Quayle's wife
from the board of the firm that manufactured my
artificial knee, and
none of the decent stockholder initiatives have passed
since I have
become an investor. To influence corporations I must
combine with
millions of others with similar interests and overcome
the disinterest
of my pension managers to intervene in the affairs of
the companies in
which they invest. When I urge such a course to a
broker or a pension
board member, I am told that I am talking socialism.
The political
process actually works a little better. Some corrupt
or incompetent
judges in Chicago have been dismissed through the
political process,
and I have even helped elect officials who will look
after at least
some of my interests. In general, however, political
democracy is
meaningless without economic democracy, and economic
democracy is

Social control does not necessarily imply centralized
or state control.
The municipally owned power grids in Sacramento, Los
Angeles and other
California venues that are functioning efficiently
while the
deregulated private power companies have crashed
disastrously are
socialist in nature although they function within an
capitalist system. Robert Owen was among the first to
use the term
socialism in English, and the consumer and producer
co-operatives that
he pioneered are socialist, including the housing
development where I
live, the credit union where I bank, and the shop
where I purchase most
of my books. Most Socialists today are quite familiar
with the
experiments in scale carried out at the British Coal
Board by E. F.
Schumacher and his interesting book Small Is
Beautiful. These days
unwieldy over-centralization is more likely to
characterize AOL Time
Warner, the poison peddlers at Philip Morris, or those
who hope to
monopolize information-processing bottlenecks.

There are institutions that will probably always
resist socialization.
As the famous Wisconsin Socialist Victor Berger once
said about a place
that he knew well: "No one wants to socialize the
corner saloon." At the
same time, Socialism is not complete until you have an
effective voice
in your working conditions, the structure of your job,
and the disposal
of society's surplus wealth. This requires a variety
of political
institutions ranging from the international to the
neighborhood, most of
which do not yet exist. When I used to make such
Utopian proposals in
the early 1960s, my cynical but brilliant comrade Max
Schachtman used to
say "But that may take months and months and months."
Indeed, but that
does not mean that the goal is not worth pursuing.

In contrast to most of the rest of the world,
socialism is a bad word in
this country, where even the legitimate descendants of
Century liberals like Ebenezer Scrooge dare not speak
their name. I have
frequently been urged to abandon the word socialism. I
do not for the
following reason. Every time I advocate single payer
government health
insurance, teacher union control of school class
sizes, a system of
intellectual property rewards that eliminates media
oligopolies, the end
of the poisoning of this planet for private profit,
the end of the
dictatorship of wealth in the political process, or
even my belief that
investing in the good health and education of every
child is more
important than creating billionaires, the Chicago
Tribune and the
Wisconsin State Journal will say that I am advocating
socialism. They
will be right. Even if my speeches and actions are
barred from their
pages, they will be right. Each individual reform
might be advocated by
persons who are not socialists, but, when every reform
tends toward
economic democracy, toward the control by everyone
over the economic
decisions that effect them, that is socialism and no

"What I mean by socialism is the condition of society
in which there
should be neither rich nor poor---neither idle nor
overworked---in which
all men would be living in equality of condition, and
would manage their
affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness
that harm to one
would mean harm to all." I apologize for the sexism of
that formula, but
William Morris died in 1896 and did not have a chance
to become as
progressive as this audience. You will be glad to know
that the present
Socialist Party is a feminist party as it is an
anti-racist party, one
which has long been in the forefront of all movements
to distribute
political power and economic justice more evenly. I
have just returned
from Washington DC where I risked arrest in several
actions to force the
president, members of his cabinet, including your own
Tommy Thompson,
and powerful lobbyists to negotiate with and make good
on promises to
the disability rights community. This national effort
meshed with a
local effort last month that brought 3,000 advocates
to the state
capital here and recently resulted in a legislative
panel approving a
$19,000,000 package to reduce waiting lists on
community-based services.
I have been arrested nineteen times while taking part
in similar
actions, and, having no respectability left to lose,
expect to be
arrested a few times more, although Bush and company
were too wimpish to
bust me this time.

Ever since the socialist movement adopted the red
flag, symbol of unity
because red is the color of the blood of all humans
socialists have been called reds. These days, when
concern over our
planetary environment has partially replaced fear of
nuclear holocaust
as our chief political concern, socialists are also
part of the group
called greens. We are also part of the labor movement,
part of the
co-operative movement, part of the movement to protect
our civil
liberties, part of the movement for campaign finance
reform, part of
the movement for effective international control of
armaments, and even
part of the movement for international standards in
weights and
measures, a reform that most Democrats and Republicans
will not touch
with a three-meter pole.

What is the difference then, between Socialists and
such useful
reformers as your own Senator Feingold, Senator
Wellstone from a
neighboring state, ex-President Carter and his very
useful Habitat for
Humanity, and more serious reformers such as Tony
Mazocchi of the labor
movement, Jesse Jackson of the civil rights and peace
movements, and
Ralph Nader of the Greens? The difference is this:
participate in such reform movements in the clear
knowledge that this
reform must lead to a further reform, and another,
that all reforms are
members of one another, just as the Book of Acts says
that all of us are
members of one another. We advocate reforms because
they are leading
toward Socialism. We have no intention of relaxing our
efforts once a
reform is won, not even if we are charged with
administering it. I was
appreciative of the timely support of Lyndon Johnson
for the civil
rights movement in 1964 and 1965, but I could not cure
myself of the
suspicion that what he most wanted was for persons
like me to shut up
and sit down. Socialists are not opposed to
compromise, but they are
opposed to stopping when the battle is only half way

When Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors took over
most of the
short-range planks from Norman Thomas's 1928 and 1932
platforms, the
leaders of organized labor, the backbone of socialist
movements in most
industrialized countries, became part of the New Deal
coalition. They
got recognition, higher wages, better working
conditions. After loyally
supporting World War II, which made enormous profits
for the bosses,
they got the Taft-Hartley law and slow strangulation.
Their employers
spent profits on moving to non-union areas, sometimes
on the other side
of the world, doing everything they possibly could to
bypass well-paid
union labor. The labor unions of Scandinavia can still
protect their
workers. The labor unions of France can shut the
country down when the
rights of the people are threatened. The labor unions
of this country
can only wonder how far the Democratic Party will sell
them out in the
next crisis. Tony Mazzocchi's Labor Party will
continue to be a
non-party. Jesse Jackson will continue to be eloquent
at Democratic
conventions, but the Rainbow Coalition will continue
to fade. That
excellent gadfly Ralph Nader will continue to advocate
reforms that cannot possibly succeed as long as
corporate profits,
not the future of the planet, determine investment
priorities. These are
useful people and movements, but they do not have
their eyes on the
prize because they fail to recognize their need of a

Incidentally, I do not blame Ralph Nader or the
Socialist candidate
David McReynolds for the victory of George W. Bush. I
blame the
bought-and-paid-for Democratic Party for failing to
raise real issues
and boring us so much that most of their core
constituents did not vote.
Certainly radical parties cannot be blamed for the
supine way Democrats
have reacted since they decided to accept the results
of that very
doubtful election.

The Socialist Party, small as it is, knows why all the
great single
issues must come together in a movement demanding the
uprooting of all
kinds of injustice, really radical change. A few years
ago a Lesbian
activist named Susan Pharr expressed this idea as
follows: "To have
single-issue politics means that we think we're only
queer, and we're
not. We want to live fully in this society. Liberation
is not about
liberation of just a piece of oneself." I do not even
know if Susan
Pharr calls herself a Socialist, but she has the right
idea. I assume
that there are African Americans not satisfied with
the elevation of
Colin Powell to the leading position in the cabinet
and with Clarence
Thomas on the Supreme Court casting a deciding vote in
a presidential
election. I assume that there are Latinos and Latinas
who will not be
satisfied with another amnesty that still leaves most
of their people
slaving for sub-standard wages and too fearful to
exercise their rights.
I assume there are Greens who realize that they will
eventually have to
part company with even such as nice person as the
current chief of the
Ford Motor Company and his greener SUVs. I personally
know that it will
mean little to restructure a job to accommodate a
person with a bad leg
if jobs cannot be restructured to accommodate you as

Now I am going to make a statement which ought to be
perfect common
sense but which is derided as irrational by the World
Bank, the
International Monetary Fund, and major contributors to
the funds of the
only political parties in this country that the media
are bound to
respect. It is from the statement of principles of the
Socialist Party
USA. "The primary goal of economic activity is to
provide the
necessities of life, including food, shelter, health
care, education,
child care, cultural opportunities, and social
services." The ruling
class's answer to this is the same as the answer to
the fellow in the
great Socialist Carl Sandburg's poem The People, Yes
who said that a job
is property: "No, nix, nah, nah." They think the
purpose of economic
activity is to pile up more and more money for fewer
and fewer people.

Socialists have always insisted that production should
be for use, not
for profit. It was this Socialist tenet that finally
convinced me to
join the party, for it finally answered a question
that had been
troubling me literally for as long as I could
remember. One of my
earliest memories is seeing a long pile of wheat
doused with kerosene
and set on fire near the Rock Island tracks in Enid,
Oklahoma. I was
accompanied by an elderly neighbor named Pat O'Donnell
who sometimes
babysat me. We had just been to a bank where Pat had
explained that he
could not make his current mortgage payment because
one of his children
was out of a job. The banker Archie Butts was our
neighbor, a kindly
person who mowed his own lawn with a hand-push mower.
He had granted Pat
an extension.

I asked why they were burning the wheat. Farmers would
go broke unless
much of the crop was destroyed to raise prices. I was
a bright
pre-schooler, and I asked Pat why Archie Butts could
not give the
farmers some money out of the bank and use that wheat
to make bread for
the people living in old packing crates in the
Hooverville a few blocks
from us. Pat thought that was pretty funny, but he
could not explain to
me why it was any sillier than burning thousands of
bushels of wheat
while children my age had spindly arms and legs and
swollen bellies. He
told me that in his father's time people had starved
when Ireland was
full of food. He had supposed the people responsible
for this were
wicked, but most of the English he met later were not
wicked and neither
was his banker or the people burning the wheat. When I
was older, I
should search for an answer.

No advocate of the present economic system ever gave
me an answer. I was
told that FDR and Henry Wallace had wrongfully
interfered with the
functioning of the market, but uninhibited market
forces had created
bank failures, the dust bowl, and starving children in
Hoovervilles in
the first place. The market system could create wealth
but could not
distribute it efficiently. Our rulers can create
medical wonders cannot
provide good health for the community. They can build
mansions but not
decent housing even for students, not to speak of
families in
involuntary poverty. They lie about their
responsibility for the crud in
our beautiful nearby lakes and in the air you are
breathing. Their
solution to energy problems is drilling for oil in
fragile ecologies
and reviving nuclear plants contrary to all common
sense. Our rulers
want to spend your surplus wealth on defense
technologies, of which the
best thing one can say about them is that most of them
do not work. This
system, when it is not maintained by naked terror, can
only be
maintained by convincing you that your interests are
identical with
those who control you, which is a lie.

Of course the burning wheat, the dust storms that are
my first memories,
and the Hoovervilles were temporary phenomena. By the
early 1940s the
price of bountiful crops of wheat was way up, Okies
had disappeared as
an identifiable class, and my grandmother, suffering
from Alzheimer's
disease, embarrassed us by thanking God for the war
while saying grace
at a family gathering. That was in poor taste, but we
knew what she
meant. World War II and the socialist redistribution
of wealth called
the GI Bill of Rights that followed it secured
undeniable middle-class
status for my family and many other families. When
asked if there were
any white men he valued, Malcolm X used to answer that
Adolf Hitler was
responsible for getting millions of African Americans
good factory jobs
and that Joseph Stalin was responsible for keeping
them in those jobs.
All of us were sorry that those jobs came at the costs
of gold stars in
our neighbors' windows, and we have learned to be even
more antiwar
as war has become less labor intensive.

In time I figured out that humans are basically
co-operative creatures
and that any organized society produces a surplus.
Whether you spend
that surplus on pharoah's tomb or an antimissile
shield or on schools
and housing is a political decision. Keeping the vast
majority of people
from realizing that they share essential interests and
have the power to
make such political decisions is the principal job of
most television
programs and the rest of the media. In 1949 I had my
first steady job
working for someone other than a relative. I made 60
cents per hour, the
then federal minimum wage, for working in a bottling
plant that also
doubled as a beer warehouse. One day I heard an
employee trying to
support a wife and new baby on that wage ask for more.

He was told that he was getting a very generous wage,
for it would be a
simple matter to lock the door between the bottling
works and the
warehouse, which would make the bottling plant no
longer interstate
commerce and thus no longer required to pay a minimum
wage. The Coke
plant in town paid only 50 cents per hour. The Pepsi
plant paid only 40
cents per hour, but they hired African Americans,
although I recall that
the plant manager used a term more common in those
days in Oklahoma.
The manager knew that white people needed more to live
and always urged
the boss to hire whites and pay the federal minimum
wage. Law concerning
interstate commerce is complex, but I learned its
essence that day, and
a great deal about racism as well. I am sometimes one
of what my fellow
Southwesterner and UW grad student C. Wright Mills
called "vulgar
Marxists", for I have found it is always useful to
find out who is
making money out of making you believe what you are
supposed to believe.

However, you may be in such a position that you have
to believe what
your boss tells you to believe and cannot afford to
have common sense.
People get derailed from the tenure track every day
for saying what
they believe and what their scrupulous research has
indicated is true.
Not everyone can afford to be an academic Kelly Girl,
piecing together
a pitiful wage by teaching scattered courses at
various schools with
little hope of a pension or adequate medical
insurance. I notice that
smart kids who begin by running racist right-wing
campus newspapers end
up with cushy foundation jobs and access to the
president while those
who demand decent wages for school janitors find
themselves out in the

For the past 42 years I have been able to afford to
call myself a
Socialist because, although I am not cut out for holy
poverty, my needs
are modest and I have always had the unconditional
support of the only
people whose love and friendship I care about. I
learned a great deal
from the first adult-level book I ever read all by
myself: The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I learned that helping
a friend escape
injustice is more important than the approval of the
leaders of society,
even if they tell you that you are going to hell. This
was confirmed for
me when I became the token white member of the
University of Oklahoma
branch of the National Advancement of Colored People
in 1953. God did
not strike me dead, I felt I had done the right thing,
and I never
looked back. I knew from that moment that I would
never attract the
money necessary for a successful political campaign,
but that was all
right. I have been able to combine with others to have
a genuine
influence on events, and I have seldom had to lie
about what I believed
in order to survive.

Lying will get your opinions mass circulation, and
telling the truth
will not. Public television is full of rude and
colorful reactionaries.
One would never guess that the Socialist Party is full
of persons so
skilled at shouting and entertaining invective that
they make the
McLaughlin Group sound like a murmuring brook. When
Disney took over ABC
a few years ago, all its progressive radio
commentators were fired,
including Jim Hightower, one of the few persons on the
left who dresses
as stylishly as I do and knows even more cow manure
jokes. I protested
by writing a letter to Mickey Eisner in care of Mickey
Mouse, but I must
now catch Hightower in the Progressive Populist rather
than on my car
radio like Paul Harvey. I, too, have published in the
Populist, and in Madison's own Progressive like the
lovely Molly Ivins,
and in the Nation like Alexander Cockburn who can
outsneer William
Buckley on the best day that Buckley ever had.

I mention these publications because they sometimes
pay in what Molly
Ivins calls the high two figures, unlike The Socialist
and the
disability rights magazines that print the bulk of my
work which do
not pay at all. I expect to be forever in the under
$5,000 annual income
category when paying dues to the National Writers
Union, even though
many of the things we Socialists write about seem to
me scarier than
anything by Stephen King.

So do not join the Socialist Party to become rich. It
is also not your
best ticket to political office or a government job.
My campaigns for
public office have been of the type called
"educational", a word that in
our society is usually good for a derisive laugh. When
I was in this
area a few years ago, my wife and I visited our
comrade Sam Day, the
only member of the Progressive editorial board to
support my 1992
candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Sam
was then resident
at the federal prison camp at Oxford, Wisconsin.

The rural economy has been slowly collapsing in
Marquette County, as it
has over much of the country, and the government has
tried to take up
some of the slack by building prisons in rural areas.
Sam Day had
obliged the authorities by illegally distributing
peace pamphlets on
military property and refusing to promise not to do it
again. Sam was
legally blind at the time and well stricken in years,
but he was deemed
to be at least as dangerous as those prisoners who had
been caught in
possession of marijuana or had tried to cheat the
Internal Revenue
Service. Many jobs had been created so that forms
could be filled out,
Sam could autograph a copy of his memoirs for me
without any physical
object passing directly between us, and our
conversations about our
mutual friends and the writing class he was
successfully conducting
there could be monitored. These jobs were perhaps not
as pleasant as
the twice-daily attaching and detaching of milking
machines to
pharmacologically enhanced cows, but the government
had done its best
for a loyal constituency.

Socialists would like to see all of us usefully
employed, but this does
not seem to us the way. We think there are far too
many drug laws and
far too few reasons to stay straight in this society.
It also seems to
us rather foolish to revive the Cold War, which was
never a good
provider of jobs since weapons got too complex for
most people to use.
I do not feel in danger from Iraq, North Korea, or any
other so-called
"rogue state", although I do feel in danger from the
very existence of
nuclear weapons. Our cancerous prison system is, of
course, a race
issue, just as our weapons stockpile is a feminist
issue, as the
chanters of the slogan "Take the toys away from the
boys" have perfectly
understood. As I cannot repeat too often, all the
issues in the
Socialist platform are organically related to each
other, and all of
them relate to the basic issue of the dangerous
inequality in economic
and therefore political power. There will be lots of
useful Socialist
jobs in day-care centers, developing super-conducting
solar energy
technology, and things like that, but these jobs may
not be available to
loyal party members for months and months and months.

Why then should you risk your job and status by
joining the Socialist
Party? For one thing, it is fun to be part of my
favorite oxymoron: the
revolutionary tradition. It is a good thing to have a
living link to
Eugene V. Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Kate Richards,
O'Hare, Helen Keller,
Vachel Lindsay, A. Philip Randolph, and millions of
others. It is a
good thing to part of a party that has existed for a
century and been
so seldom wrong.

Of course Debs made his first reputation by going to
jail for leading
the 1894 Pullman boycott and conducted his last
presidential campaign
from Atlanta Prison because of his opposition to World
War I, and Kate
O'Hare did much harder time for the same offense.
Early socialists had
badly underestimated the irrational appeal of
nationalism. Within a few
weeks after World War I began socialists were killing
socialists with
the enthusiasm with which Christians had traditionally
Christians. The American party was an honorable
exception to this, and
its antiwar stance was used an excuse to destroy it.
With democratic
socialism seemingly a failure, many found a new beacon
in Lenin and
Stalin's Russia, which used socialist rhetoric
successfully to
industrialize a backward economy and which crushed
Nazi military power
in a way that had proved impossible for the Czar when
confronting the
Kaiser. Socialism, however, cannot be imposed from the
top down, and
American socialists need no longer waste time telling
of our many
objections to the former USSR.

The party revived somewhat in the late 1920s, and
Norman Thomas got some
fairly respectable vote totals in 1928 and 1932 before
the Democrats and
even the Republicans stole a lot of his platform. The
Socialist Party
refused to go away, however. I once heard Thomas say
that his favorite
campaign was the 1944 effort when he got the least
votes: the party took
unpopular stands demanding the release of Japanese
Americans from
concentration camps and condemned our wartime ally
Stalin for using
slave labor. Reactionary Republican leaders like John
denounced Thomas for this, which amused Thomas
greatly. After Henry
Wallace's failed effort to unite progressives in 1948,
states began
enacting laws to keep parties unable to attract major
corporate funding
off the ballot. Many Socialists tried to advance their
ideas through
labor unions and the progressive wing of the
Democratic Party. This
attempt to turn people like Teddy Kennedy into
Socialists has not as yet

Some of us had learned valuable lessons from the civil
rights movement
about political fantasy and reality and had begun to
appreciate the
reasons why Martin Luther King once called Norman
Thomas the greatest
living American. I spent many hot dusty days in the
summer of 1964
tramping the unpaved streets of Mississippi towns
registering voters for
the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a party that
had no legal
existence under Mississippi law. At the end of the
summer this
non-existent party sent delegates to the Democratic
convention. Our
beautiful Fannie Lou Hamer electrified the credentials
committee and the
nation. The next year the Voting Rights Act was passed
and political
fantasy became reality. Today Mississippi has more
African American
office holders than any other state, and all those
streets are paved. Of
course most of those people are still poor, but there
is still the
chance that they will some day re-connect with their
Socialist allies.

Everyone present here should also connect with the
Socialist Party. I
hope all my talk of jailings has not turned you off.
Actually most
Socialists have not been punished severely for leading
lives of noisy
fulfillment rather than quiet desperation. One of my
Socialist models
has been George Bernard Shaw, who lived to an advanced
age by packaging
his socialism in witty epithets. I do not expect to
equal Shaw's
longevity, for I have been unable to give up alcohol,
meat, or geriatric
sex, but I do expect to enjoy the company of my
comrades for a long time
to come. I have found that being a Socialist is not
only socially
useful, it is fun.

Tomorrow morning I go on one of your local talk radio
shows. I would not
be on that show if my expertise on education consisted
only of having
taught high school and junior high for 32 years, that
my knowledge of
race relations came from living in African American
neighborhoods most
of my life, and that my knowledge of labor unions came
from being a
school delegate to my local and participating in nine
strikes. I shall
be on that program because I have been chosen to speak
for a political
party whose membership is way below critical mass. It
would help if I
could say that the party has a newly revived local
with an intelligent
and concerned membership. Will you be part of it?
Years from now, when
I talk about having known Frank Zeidler, Dolores
Huerta, and Barbara
Garson, I would like to say that all of us were
comrades, too.

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