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V. Grey

Shop Talks on Socialism

(26 May 1945)

From The Militant, Vol. IX No. 21, 26 May 1945, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sometimes a fellow thinks he’s not getting much brighter as time goes on. And sometimes he wonders how he’s ever going to get smart enough to understand the theory of socialism. Karl Marx, Lenin and Trotsky seem like geniuses out of this world. And you can’t even understand their words without a dictionary. At least that’s the way it looks at first.

And you find yourself thinking, “Well, this socialism stuff is all right for college people and geniuses. But look at me. I only work for a living. I even fall asleep over a newspaper when I’ve had a hard day. How am I going to understand the books when I don’t even read all the articles in The Militant?”

Well that reminds me of the first helper’s job on the open hearth. You know, it wasn’t so many years ago – just before we got the union, in fact – that a first helper made out that his job was like one of the mysteries of the Knights of Columbus. And nobody but him could understand it. That was in the days when the superintendent would put his boy friends in your job at the drop of a hat.

If the second helper was a little brash and bold he might ask he aristocratic first helper, to explain something about the job. But the answer was always “It can’t be explained, my boy. It’s too complicated. You’ll understand after you’re a first helper.”

That was pretty good! How could you ever get to be a first helper if no one could tell you the first thing about running the furnace? You would look into that furnace every day of your life and see the iron soup bubbling and blowing like the devil’s own brew. But you never knew just what temperature to run the oil at to make the iron boil. That was one of the mysteries.

You’d shovel manganese into a flaming ladle in the pit when the “heat” was being tapped out. You’d hold your head down to keep your face from being burned – or try to. But no one ever told you what the manganese was for or why there was more one day and less another. Same with the silicon on the other side of the spout that you used to throw in when you were a third helper.

Read about it? That’s a joke. You flop down on the davenport the minute you get home, and the one time you feel good at the end of the week, three shots go straight to your head, and you’re done for on your day off, too.

How You Will Learn – and Teach Others

You’d see the first helper shovel “spar” into the furnace every so often. It brought the slag to the top, somehow. But how much or how little to use was one of the slick tricks of the trade. And he hugged all his instruments like a lioness watches her cubs. You’d watch him make notations on a scratch pad that looked like a cross between shorthand and Chinese arithmetic. You began to think you were just, a dummy.

Well, after the union came in and seniority prevailed, after the first helper didn’t have to worry that he was going to be kicked cut for somebody’s brother-in-law, some of the first helpers began to open up a little and teach the fellows a few things. Well that isn’t the point, exactly. The point is that the second helpers began to see that it wasn’t such a mystery after all. And the theory was only something that corresponded to their own experience. It sort of lit up ard clarified what they had already been thinking about.

That’s the way it is with life, too. The class struggle bubbles and boils. And at first that seems to be quite a mystery to understand too. You see it every day of your life and take part in it yourself. Wars, depressions, wage-cuts – strikes, picket lines, revolution.

There’s one big difference, though. First helpers like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are waiting eagerly in their books to explain the process. There are others in The Militant doing the same explaining the day-to-day fight as well as the coming struggle. The first helpers of the socialist revolution are anxious for you to be a first helper too. And you’re going to find, as you make tht first steps forward, that it’s not such an impossible thing as you thought.

You’ve already seen it a little when you’ve explained The Militant’s position to a fellow worker. And later when the class struggle reaches the boiling point, you’re going to step up front and tell dozens – maybe hundreds or thousands – of other working people how to turn the shapeless, boiling mass of revolutionary iron into the high quality steel of a workers’ government. And in the process you’ll find out you weren’t so dumb as you thought.

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Last updated: 5 November 2018