[Marxism] Old YPSL Socialist Songbook online

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Sat Apr 24 06:27:50 MDT 2004

The IWW provides a shining example of a movement rightly remembered as
much for its participatory counterculture as its political agenda.  I
used to think about the Wobblies--and the contemporary
counterculture--when looking at the organized Left.  It was the
difference between Woodstock and a convention of encyclopedia salesmen.

IWW songs and stories incorporated a kind of self-deprecating humor
about the poverty, dangers and despairs of hobo life.  I fear that the
appearance of such an approach in most of the organized groups of our
day would have triggered the antibodies to cluster around and suffocate
it pretty quickly.  Indeed, I think this contributes to the viciousness
of internal life in these organizations, which inspires a kind of
gallows humor among the resident dissidents that the leadership and its
supporters must pretend never to understand it.  

I recall after a branch meeting one week, as we were picking up some
forum leaflets, one member said off-handedly to one of the leadership
loyalists that the branch should have printed the leaflets on pink paper
rather than yellow.  No, came the predictable response, the party
decision to use yellow paper was right because it made the type stand
out in such-and-such a way and made the point clearer, etc.  For next
month's forum, though, the branch printed the leaflet in pink rather
than yellow, and another of us would offhandedly remark to the same
person "this looks like a good forum, but don't you think this would
have looked better in yellow?"  It was a struggle to keep a straight
face as the comrade defended the "party decision" to use pink rather
than yellow with the same vehemence with which he had loyally defended
the earlier decision to use yellow rather than pink. 

In hindsight, I'm sure we came off as carping critics.  However, I think
we were responding to the situation of powerlessness with the same humor
workers naturally use in the workplace or the army...politely tweaking
the way those with a little or no power protect the status quo by
thinking of themselves as perched at the right hand of God...typing
together the remarkably short mental shoelaces of petty officialdom and
hitting them with a custard pie...  

Singing the kind that Tom quoted--"Bill Bailey, the Ultimate
Sectarian"--reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously and, more
importantly, reminds those we choose to follow not to take themselves
too seriously either.  ("Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal!")  And the
very fact we participate in their singing makes such songs ours in a way
that listening to performers and consuming the results them can not.

People are drawn to a movement because of the ideas, and because the
movement offers a place where those ideas can be elaborated upon.  In
our experience, after a year or so, most recruits have gotten what they
can assimilate and leave.  Most of the few that stay the course do so by
gritting their teeth in an iron-jawed defense of their decision to stay.
The result creates a movement that looks more like a dutiful
congregation of lock-jawed Episcopalian churchgoers.  ...though I think
most Episcopalians probably had more fun at it. 

Mark L.

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