[Paleopsych] Berkeley Daily Planet: Marxist Library Keeps the Struggle Alive
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Sat Oct 15 15:47:51 UTC 2005
Marxist Library Keeps the Struggle Alive
By MATTHEW ARTZ
Edition Date: Tuesday, October 11, 2005
While the world-wide proletariat struggle may have seen better days,
there is a museum in Oakland making sure socialism's bygone era will
never be forgotten.
Stepping inside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library at 6501 Telegraph
Ave. is like entering an alternate universe. Gone are any notions of
the red menace, axis of evil, or heroic entrepreneurs blazing a trail
At Niebyl-Proctor, Brezhnev is presented as a matinee idol, North
Korea has the makings of a utopian society and heroes carry union
cards and always fight for the working man.
"We're preserving the history of people who led valiant struggles and
have just been erased," said the library's Executive Director Bob
Patenaude. "We keep their memory alive."
Niebyl-Proctor's holdings include about 15,000 books, more than 20,000
pamphlets and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with oral histories of
progressive activists from the early 20th century.
The bulk of the collection was donated by the estate of Karl Niebyl, a
Marxist economics professor who escaped from Nazi Germany and came to
the Bay Area late in life to teach at San Jose State.
After his death in 1985, Niebyl's friends stored his 253 cartons of
books and pamphlets in the basement of a San Jose bookstore while they
searched for a showplace, said Edith Laub, an early museum volunteer
and now, along with Patenaude, one of its two paid staffers.
With donations from supporters and technical assistance from UC
Berkeley's Bancroft Library, the collection moved into Berkeley's
Finnish Hall in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the library inherited the
papers of Roscoe Proctor, a Berkeley labor organizer, and the
Niebyl-Proctor library was born.
Space and money constraints keep the library from updating its
collection, but when it comes to materials on progressive and Marxist
causes up to the 1980s, Niebyl-Proctor is loaded.
Inside the library's 58 file drawers full of pamphlets, one can find
the 1933 Manifesto of the Young Communist League of the United States,
urging America's youth to "Fight for a Soviet U.S.A.", or a 1948
report on North Korea, heralding the "People's Revolution" there and
forecasting a peaceful reunification after the inevitable financial
ruin for the American-dominated south.
Pamphlets were a common tool of communist governments and their allies
abroad to promote Marxist views across the globe, Patenaude said.
"Sure this is pure communist propaganda, but it was to counter U.S.
propaganda, which is just as misleading and sometimes even more vile,"
The library is also home to an extensive archive. Inside the drawers
are original Black Panther street posters decrying the "kidnapping" of
its leader Bobby Seale by "FBI Pigs With Drawn Guns." Also available
are first-hand accounts of a 1947 riot in Peekskill, New York, when
the left-wing African American entertainer Paul Robeson tried to give
an outdoor concert, and the original speech recited in 1945 by Russian
diplomat Nikolai Novikov before a packed house at Madison Square
Garden honoring those who had fought against Franco in the Spanish
"What people don't often realize is that these were huge mass
movements," Patenaude said. "They might seem a little hokey now, but
these ideas drive the world for decades."
The library is constantly receiving book donations and updating its
collection. Besides the collected works of Marx and Engels,
Niebyl-Proctor contains sections unfathomable in most libraries, like
psychology in the former Soviet Union.
Laub said the library gets the occasional visit from UC Berkeley
researchers, but most of the patrons are locals who just want to
browse. On a recent Tuesday, the only visitor from noon until 2 p.m.
was Chris Kavanagh, a middle school teacher and Berkeley Rent Board
"As a Green Party activist, I'm fascinated by the mass movements on
the left and what led to their demise," said Kavanagh, as he was
reading a copy of Socialism and the Great War.
The only drawback, Kavanagh said, is that the library doesn't allow
patrons to check out materials.
"It isn't easy for a Marxist library to survive in a capitalist
county," said Patenaude, who made his living as a purchasing manager
for several local businesses before taking over the library. In 2002,
the library received $61,204 in contributions, but spent over $74,320,
according to state records.
"Fundraising is always front and center," he said. "We lose a lot of
time we could spend on political work just trying to keep the place
The library's biggest asset is its two-story building on Telegraph
Avenue, a gift from an anonymous supporter.
To increase its cash flow and raise its profile, the library has
recently begun renting space to local left-leaning political groups
like the Alameda County Green Party, the Communist Party USA and the
Peace and Freedom Party.
Although Marxism might not be the potent political force it once was,
its adherents across the country are organizing to save relics of past
glories in hopes that a new golden era might not be far away. There is
a Marxist reading room in New York City, Patenaude said, and Marxist
libraries were being planned in Sacramento and Chicago.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Patenaude. He argues that U.S.
policies aren't sustainable and if the political tide turns,
Niebyl-Proctor will be around to let people know about library's its
"We're maintaining the history of our class," he said. "The working
class and their fight against the bad guys."
The Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tuesday through Friday or by appointment. 6501 Telegraph Ave.
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