[Marxism] Memories of a distant past

James Zarichny zarichny at yahoo.com
Sat Oct 22 19:29:04 MDT 2005


      The Coldwater Road Picnic Grounds

           Shall we be slaves 
           And work for wages?
           It's outrageous!
                                                      
Somebody bought the picnic grounds located just
outside the city of Flint  where Coldwater Road
dead-ended about an eighth of a mile from the Flint
River.  Some people said the grounds belonged to a
Hungarian doctor.  Others said it was a Macedonian
businessman.  Jimmy never did find out whose it was. 
>From Memorial Day until Labor Day, every Sunday would
be reserved by some organization for its annual
picnic.

A large variety of organizations held picnics there. 
Mostly, they were foreign language groups, primarily
IWO lodges.  The International Workers Order  (IWO)
was a Communist led fraternal society that offered 
cheap life insurance policies.  There were ten or
fifteen IWO lodges in Flint.  The larger lodges were
the Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian
lodges.  But there were smaller Serbian, Polish,
Croatian, and other Slavic lodges.  At its high point,
the IWO had nine hundred members in Flint.  Typically,
the picnics lasted all Sunday afternoon and well into
the evening.  Usually, the picnics drew from fifty to
a hundred fifty people.

The picnic grounds were fenced in.  Usually, some one
was at the gate collecting an admissions fee.  It was
three or four miles out of town, so one needed an
automobile to get there.  Near the parking lot was a
large roofed open-air dance pavilion.  Often, the
sponsoring organization would hire an orchestra to
play polka music for people to dance to.  Nearby was a
booth where beer and soda pop were sold.  Very rarely
did they sell hard liquor because a one day hard
liquor license was much more expensive than a beer
permit.  Food was sold.  Sometimes it was ethnic
specialties, but more often ordinary foods such as hot
dogs.

The picnics were important fundraisers for the
organizations, which were always in need of funds,
especially to support their newspapers.  At that time
there were about thirty pro-Communist foreign language
newspapers published in America.  None of them got
enough money from subscriptions.  The various IWO
lodges were always sending money to the national
office of their newspaper to keep it afloat.

Tom (my dad) would take his family to three, four, or
five picnics every year.  He always went to the
Russian IWO picnic, the Macedonian picnic, and the
picnic put on by the Flint Communist Party.  He
avoided the Ukrainian, Polish, and Hungarian picnics. 
Jimmy looked forward to the picnics.  Sometimes he
would talk with the other boys of junior high school
age.  He could not swim. And he didn't think he wanted
to join with them in swimming in the Flint River after
he noticed raw sewage floating in it.  Instead, Jimmy
helped to scrounge the second growth scrub forest for
dead logs and wood to keep the campfire burning.

In the evenings, sometimes the campfire would be
dominated by the older folk who would sing traditional
songs in their native language.  But on other
occasions, it would be dominated by the younger adults
who sang labor songs and songs of Wobbly origin. 
Songs by Joe Hill were still popular.  Probably the
most popular song was sung to the tune of Red Wing. 
Red Wing was still widely known by the general public.
 The original song was a raunchy, sexist, Chauvinistic
song about an Indian maid.  But the new words were
probably of Wobbly origin.  They began

               "Shall we be slaves and work for wages?
                It's outrageous!"

        The words seemed to hit a deep chord in the
hearts of the young autoworkers.

But the thing Jimmy enjoyed the most was listening to
the conversations of the young auto workers.  One
conversation that left a particularly deep impression
on him was about the attitudes of workers in the
factory.  The man talking had observed that
immediately after the sit-down strikes, the workers
had spoken of the union as "we".  But within eight
months, after the bargaining procedure had been
formalized, the union became "they".  The speaker was
concerned about this because he felt it reflected a
growing gap between the workers and their union.  Over
the years, this theme of the bureaucratization of the
labor movement was returned to again and again in the
concerns of the local Communists.  Concerns about this
became especially pronounced years later when the
Union got a contract saying that the company would
collect union dues through a check-off system.  Before
that, the shop steward had to go around and collect
dues from every union member.  In the course of doing
that, he could hear the complaints of individual
members.  This was a channel through which
communication flowed between the membership and the
union leaders.  The Communists were troubled by the
fact that the dues check-off broke this link and the
bureaucratization hardened, but they could not oppose
the check-off because they had learned from their
study of the IWW experience that one of the reasons
for the IWW failure was its refusal to
institutionalize itself.

A long running discussion centered on how to develop
class awareness among the workers.  It was obvious
that the American working class lacked
class-consciousness.  The problem was how to
crystallize the working class into an entity that
acted in its own behalf.  At the time, a big chunk of
the Flint working class was newly newly
proletarianized.  Many of the local youth had taken
off for California, and big chunks of the working
class in the local General Motors factories were farm
boys newly arrived in Flint.  The most frequent
discussion centered on the theme of how to change the
working class from a class in itself to a class for
itself.  The most popular position was a "stages"
theory, which might have originated with the full time
Party organizer, Earl Reno.  According to this theory,
mass awareness would proceed in three stages.  The
first stage was trade union consciousness.  Workers
would learn that they needed a labor union, and they
could only get it through strike action, an almost
spontaneous form of class struggle.  In this first
stage the workers would learn that they needed their
own organization in the factory to defend their
interests.  According to this theory, they first had
to consolidate the union victory.  Later, the union
would have to take up the interests of the workers
that existed outside of the factory.  This would
require the entry of the union into political
activity.  From this, the workers would learn that
they were in conflict with the capitalist class over a
wide range of issues, and from this would grow the
second stage, class-consciousness.  Over a longer
period of time, workers would become aware that their
problems could not be solved within the framework of
capitalism.  This would lead to the third stage,
socialist consciousness.  This is why the local
Communists were so concerned about bureaucratization
in the union because if there were a gap between the
workers and their union, it would slow down the
development of class-consciousness.  The opposition to
the stages theory ran along the lines that issues such
as fascism, women's rights, Negro liberation, etc. had
to be taken up immediately, and could not be made to
wait for the appropriate stage.  The stages theory was
the more popular and it seemed to make sense to Jimmy,
who was deeply aware of the lack of
class-consciousness among the children of the
autoworkers in his junior high school.

The Russian IWO picnics were always well attended. 
After the strike, the Russian IWO had grown to fifty
or sixty members.  Not only did its members come, but
also people from the general non-political Russian
community.  They came because they wanted to be among
Russian speaking people and to take part in the
singing of traditional Russian songs around the
campfire.  As at all of the picnics, some local
Communists and a large number of people from the other
ethnic groups came because they wanted a relaxing
Sunday afternoon.

But Jimmy gradually became aware that one significant
element in the Russian community never came.  These
were the members of the Russian Progressive Club. 
>From his parents, he learned how this had come about.

Twenty years earlier, the Russian community in Flint
warmly welcomed the Russian revolution. Most of them
were newly arrived young immigrants.  They had left
Russia for economic reasons and they believed that the
Revolution would improve economic conditions there. 
Most of them had a limited education and the word
democracy was absent from their thinking.  One of
their greatest concerns was that their children were
losing the Russian language and culture.  They
conceived the idea of building a Russian Cultural
Center.  This Center would have weekend classes in
which their children would learn the Russian alphabet
and to read Russian books.  There would be music
classes where the children would learn to play the
bayan and the balalaika.  The children would learn
traditional Russian folk dances.  There would be a
meeting hall that could be used as a dance hall for
older teen-age children.  This vision inspired a large
number of fund raising events.  By the late twenties,
they had a substantial sum of money, almost enough to
build a decent building.

This was the period when the American Communist Party
was trying to organize independent Communist led labor
unions.  At that time there was a substantial number
of coal mines in Pennsylvania that had a predominantly
immigrant work force.  A Communist led union, the
National Miners Union, tried to oust John L. Lewis's
union, the United Mine Workers of America.  The
National Miners Union called a strike, which turned
out to be long and bitter.  Many mines were closed for
half a year by the strike.  But strike funds ran out. 
Loyal strikers were on the verge of starvation.  In
desperation, the Communist leadership searched for
every possible source of money.  They appealed to the
Russian Cultural Center of Flint to turn over its
entire building fund to the strike support committee. 
This led to a long and bitter debate.  The Communists
organized and brought every possible supporter to the
meeting.  By a narrow margin, the organization voted
to donate.  In bitterness, the others left to form the
Russian Progressive Club, an anarchist oriented
organization.  They were convinced the Communists had
behaved in an unethical fashion and had betrayed the
trust of the many people who had worked so hard as
fundraisers.  The victors evolved into the Russian
IWO.  It was not until World War II, when both groups
supported Russian War Relief, that they ever talked to
each other again.

Jimmy never thought about why his dad chose to go to
the Macedonian picnics.  Perhaps it was because Tom's
friend, Sidor Milnechuk, always went to them.  Sidor
was a Russian who worked along side him in Plant # 40
at the Buick. Sidor's daughter was married to a
Macedonian restaurant owner.  Nor was it clear to
Jimmy whether the Macedonians were an IWO lodge or
some other organization. But the thing that Jimmy long
remembered was the Macedonians bringing a butchered
lamb to be skewered over the bon fire.  After they
roasted it, they cut it into pieces, put sauces on it,
and sold it calling it "Shashlik."  Most of the
Americans loved it, but Jimmy never tried it because
it appeared unappetizing.

Over a long period of time, Jimmy pieced together a
great deal of information about the Macedonian
community in Flint.  One of their key figures was Mrs.
Evanoff.  In the early years of the twentieth century,
she still lived in the Balkans.  Her father was an
important figure in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. 
The region she lived in was still ruled by Turkey. 
Most of the Macedonian people wanted independence for
their country and there were almost hopeless uprisings
against the Turks.  The extreme nationalists believed
that everyone who was not an active supporter of their
organization was a traitor.  They assassinated Mrs.
Evanoff's father because he remained silent on the
question of nationalism.

Shortly after World War I, many of the Macedonian
nationalists as well as Mrs. Evanoff came to live in
Flint.  There, some Macedonians developed a uniquely
Flint type of hot dog restaurant called the coney
island.  Before World War II, they were the most
popular fast food places in the city.  When Flint
people asked the owners, "What country did you come
from?" most of them replied "Greece."  That is how the
mistaken notion developed that the coney islands were
Greek restaurants.

Turkey was defeated in World War I, but Macedonia did
not become independent.  Earlier, it had been divided
between Turkey and Greece.  After the war, it was
divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.  In
the twenties, the Communist International declared its
support for an independent Macedonia. It declared its
support for taking the Macedonian lands from Bulgaria,
Yugoslavia, and Greece and uniting them into an
independent nation.  The Flint Macedonians were
impressed.  The Macedonian business community became
an important source of funds for the Flint Communist
Party.  Mrs. Evanoff joined the CP where she became a
key leader, a post she held for a number of years in
the late twenties.

At one of the picnics late in the summer of 1938, one
of the older IWO people asked Jimmy, "Why don't you
join the Twentieth Century Youth Club?  You're
starting senior high school this fall, and there's a
lot of high school kids there.  They meet every Friday
evening above McKeighan's Drug Store on North Saginaw
Street."  This was the first that Jimmy had ever heard
of the Twentieth Century Youth Club.




		
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