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Ernest Lund

Straight Talk – Reading That Really Matters

(3 July 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 27, 3 July 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This week I want to devote my column to the question of reading matter for workers and, particularly, the book list I have compiled and asked the editors to print in this issue.

My book list is the outgrowth of the countless requests I have received at one time or another from workers who want to read to understand the many and complex questions facing the working class movement or from friends who want to know what they can give to a fellow worker in the shop to help him understand our point of view.

It has long been my opinion that many of our friends have a poor approach to this question. After a worker has read a few issues of Labor Action and shows interest in our paper, many of our friends conclude: “Now for some SIMPLE socialist reading matter.” And the next day they slip the grateful worker a copy of Value, Price and Profit by Marx or Anti-Dühring by Engels.

The worker remains gratified by this interest shown in his education until he gets home after a hard day’s work and sits down to read the above mentioned material. About on page three the stuff begins to work like the fifth beer on a hot day and the worker enters into a losing struggle with his sagging eyelids. By this time he has concluded that either he is too dumb to ever be able to understand socialism or that his shop mate is playing a joke on him by giving him the script for a double-talk act disguised as workers’ reading matter.

After a few days the worker will return the book and either admit it is over his head, which few do, or merely say: “Very interesting,” as most will. I recall the worker who returned a copy of Value, Price and Profit to me back in the days of the unemployed movement when workers had a lot of time on their hands, with the comment: “Never suspected there was so much to value.”

Getting Workers to Read and Think

The mistake most of our friends make in selecting material for their shop mates is to look for something that will give him the “whole works” in one volume. First of all, there is very little available that attempts to do this. And the best of this, precisely because it is so comprehensive, serves only as an over-all view and leaves big gaps that must be filled in with facts and arguments. That is why workers who read something like Plenty for All will say: “Yes, it sounds good, but it will never be,” or “It’s a fine idea, but it will never work” or similar comments. Such a pamphlet unrolls a vision before their eyes but they usually don’t have the background to understand that it rests on stubborn facts about our world today and on a scientific analysis of social development.

No one book can supply such a background. This is a matter of considerable reading and much discussion. Many of our friends came to our movement directly from college or from white collar backgrounds. In these circles they rubbed shoulders with America’s great reading public. But if the average worker in the shop reads one whole book in a year it is a lot. His work and conditions of life are not conducive to reading “heavy stuff.” The book must have a special interest for him and be popularly written. But even in this case the political education of the worker will be advanced by innumerable discussions rather than merely by reading. The reading serves as background and stimulation for the discussion.

Often on lunch hour a discussion develops about some topic related to understanding our world and why we must change it. This gives one the opportunity to talk about a book one has read dealing with the subject.

If one notes that a particular fellow worker is especially interested, one can go over to him later and say: “Say, Joe, about that book I was talking about. How would you like to read it? I can get it for you.” This may be a worker who has not even seen Labor Action yet. However, once he has read the book, even something so seemingly distant from socialist education as Van Paasen’s Days of Our Years, one has a common bond with the worker in discussing the book for days after.

In the course of the discussion one touches upon fascism, Spain, Palestine, imperialism, diplomacy, pacifism, war, and other subjects. Joe will soon reveal what struck him most about the book. Then one can suggest something else, say an anti-fascist novel like Fontamara or Jack London’s Iron Heel. Again a discussion follows and Joe’s education advances. Not only does he learn new ideas but he develops the invaluable habit of reading worthwhile material.

This method does not only work with fellow-workers in the shop. It is also a good means of educating subscribers to Labor Action who might be visited from time to time about their subscriptions.

Preparing for Marxist Study

The list I have compiled is not intended to be either complete or a selection of the best. Many of our friends will, no doubt, know of other similar and better books for this purpose. I have compiled my list on the basis of books I have had experience with in giving to workers to read or books I remember contributed much to my education when I first became a socialist.

Many of the books on the list will be hard to get. Some are out of print. Some are rather expensive if still available. Labor Action Book Service would greatly increase its commendable service to the labor movement by stocking those books that are still available. However, almost all of them will be found in any fairly good public library.

Lest someone gain the impression that I am trying to keep the American working class from reading Marx, let me hasten to add that my effort is directed solely toward paving the way to an understanding and study of Marxism.

It should also be added here that college students, intellectuals and others in the habit of studying will, of course, be approached differently. For their introduction into the ideas of socialism and for the worker who has begun to comprehend our theories, we need an additional list of Marxist works. I hope this will soon be forthcoming.

(Book List will appear next week.)

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