One Hundred Years of Socialism in One Activist

by Dave Elsila

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Oscar Paskal in blue poncho with a green UAW On Strike sign, showing solidarity in the rain with Dave Elsila (left), Nancy Brigham and Reg McGhee. (September 2019)

By the time he was 16 and a high-school student in New York, Oscar Paskal knew he was a socialist.

“I read a lot, and as I became aware of the problems of living, especially during the hard times of the Great Depression,” he recalls, “I realized what we had to do to resolve those problems was to create a socialist society.”

Next March 23, Oscar will celebrate his 100th birthday. As the oldest member of Detroit DSA, he has never lost that early commitment to socialism. He regularly attends DSA membership meetings, walked the GM picket line with other DSAers, and maintains close ties with comrades in labor and social justice movements.

His activism began during the Great Depression as a student at Townsend Harris High School on East 23rd St. and Lexington Ave. in New York.

“One day on the way to school, I picked up a newspaper — not the popular Daily News, but the more serious New York Times — and on the front page was a photograph of Genora Johnson leading the Women’s Emergency Brigade at the Flint sit-down strike,” he said. Reading about that historic 44-day strike some 600 miles away, as well as learning about an earlier strike by Teamsters in Minneapolis, inspired him, turning him into a lifelong supporter of the labor movement.

Oscar met other students in high school and then at City College who shared his vision. They started a discussion group and eventually joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the Yipsels.

“One young man in our group had no family and lived alone,” he said, “but was denied welfare. We thought that was unfair, so we decided to picket the welfare office to demand help for him. The police arrested 16 of us.”

Oscar’s father was a sheet-metal worker in a New York factory and although he had progressive views, his long workweek and his mother’s full-time job in the garment trades left his parents little time for activism. Both were members of the left-wing Jewish group, the Workmen’s Circle, or Arbeiter Ring, and his father remembered shaking the hand of Eugene Debs, the Socialist candidate for President, in 1924.

His parents suggested that once Oscar graduated from high school he go on to study accounting at City College in order to get a good-paying job. But Oscar had no appetite for accounting. Although youth unemployment at the time was high (Oscar and his friends called themselves the “locked-out generation”) they went looking for work, sometimes finding jobs in non-union machine shops that they then tried to organize.

“In one shop, two comrades, including Irving Howe [later to become a well-known author] and I were hired, but when the boss saw us trying to organize a union, we were immediately fired.”

Just like today, the socialists of the late 1930s had to fight groups on the far right. Oscar joined thousands of socialists and progressives who picketed Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939, when the pro-fascist German-American Bund held a rally there under the guise of “Americanism” as Nazi swastikas flanked U.S. flags and a giant portrait of George Washington.

The U.S. entered World War II in late 1941. As a member of the Workers Party, Oscar and two other members headed off to Detroit to get jobs in the auto industry, now making tanks and munitions for the war.

“I applied at Chrysler, but they wouldn’t hire me because they knew I could be drafted at any time,” he said. Indeed, the Army took Oscar, then in his early 20s, and sent him to Europe as part of the 76th Infantry Division. He fought in Germany from the Battle of the Bulge until the war ended.

Returning to Detroit, he was hired by Chrysler where he worked for 18 years under a UAW contract, and later became a union representative in the union’s education department and an instructor at Wayne State University. Throughout this period, he maintained his socialist ties, joining the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. DSOC founder Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, stayed with Oscar and his wife Dolores and daughter Alison at their home when he visited Detroit. In the late 1970s, DSOC merged with the New American Movement to form DSA, and Oscar has continued as a member ever since.

For many years, socialism was under attack and people were led to think it was somehow un-American and were afraid of the word. Oscar says, “Socialist meetings were small enough that they could be held in my house, attended mostly by people whose hair was getting gray.”

“Now it’s a pleasure to see large meetings with so many young people who had not previously been involved.”

Indeed, from the time that Oscar was a 21-year-old socialist activist to now, the percentage of Americans who see socialism as a good thing has increased from just a quarter of the population then to 43 percent now, according to a May 2019 Gallup poll. And another 2019 poll shows almost half of Millennial and Gen Z respondents would prefer living in a socialist country.

The journey that Oscar began as a teenager in New York decades ago is moving to new heights. “I always knew it was important to maintain a socialist organization for the fulfillment of our vision,” he said. That vision is as clear today as it was to him in the 1930s.

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