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Waiting for the revolution in the company of a good book

on November 28, 2009

It is hard to see the sign for the Niebyl-Proctor Library from the street, and even if you did see it you probably wouldn’t find anything remarkable about this pleasant-looking wooden house on the 6500 block of Telegraph Avenue. But the plain two-story façade conceals an unusual interior, and the sign omits one important word in the building’s title: Marxist.

Bob Patenaude, 58, is the director — and for now the only employee — of the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library. He says the decision to exclude the notorious denomination from the sign came simply from a need to shorten the library’s title, not as a way to avoid controversy.

“It wasn’t an ideological or political choice,” said Patenaude on a recent afternoon, as he sat in the library’s office with a large painting of Marx to his left and a bottle of orange Soviet soda decorated with a red flag to his right. In the 12 years he has upheld dialectical materialism in this corner of north Oakland, Patenaude says, he can’t recall a single unpleasant incident with his pro-capitalist neighbors. He attributes this to the East Bay’s accepting political climate. “We just fit in,” he said. “I mean, if we had opened up in Oklahoma City, I think there would be some problems.”

Oakland’s only Marxist library houses some 17,000 books and 20,000 pamphlets and documents, brimming with subversive, anti-capitalist and revolutionary literature: a “snapshot of radical thinking from post World War II to end of the 20th century,” as Patenaude proudly announced while giving a tour of the place. But there are also some surprises. In the main room on the second floor there was a copy of the classic of bourgeois economics: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of the Nations.

Most of the books in the library came from the private collections of two local Marxists: Roscoe Proctor, an African-American labor and civil rights activist; and Karl Niebyl, a German economist who fled the Nazis and landed in California, where he taught the principles invented by his famous namesake.

The library moved from Berkeley to its current location on Telegraph Avenue in 1996. An anonymous New Yorker from a “wealthy family in the financial sector” donated the spacious two-story building to the nonprofit that runs the library. Patenaude said he feels no remorse about accepting the gift from a closeted millionaire.

“That’s the world we live in,” he said, waving hands that resemble those of a factory worker rather than those of a librarian. “We live in a world dominated by global capitalism. You can’t make believe that’s not true. You most surely cannot behave as though you were living in the new society when you’re struggling in the old society.”

Two years ago, the building was repainted. Patenaude said he considered painting the exterior a telling shade of red, but ultimately decided, after consulting with the painters and the organization’s board, to go with the current neutral, light blue.

Patenaude works the phone while Marx watches on.

Patenaude works the phone while Marx watches on.

Today, the library hosts not only books, but a variety of activities ranging from classes and academic talks to meetings of the Green party, a writing group, women’s groups, even Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“We serve the community, you know?” Patenaude said.  “In whatever the community needs.”

According to the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library’s online mission statement, the library exists in order to “help working-class people understand and create our role in history.” The working class, in Marxist theory, includes anyone who is forced to sell her labor to make a living — in other words, anybody who is a salaried worker. “The same principles apply,” said Patenaude. “Whether you’re making $200,000 or you’re making four or five bucks an hour at a McDonald’s.”

This means, of course, that in theory even the Wall Street investment bankers blamed for the economic crisis that left so many workers without jobs would also fall into the working class category. Technically, yes, says Patenaude, though “a guy working in an assembly line in Detroit is going to have an entirely different consciousness about what selling labor is than, say, an investment banker. It doesn’t mean that the interests of the privileged section of the working class are the same.”

Marxism has never enjoyed much admiration in the United States outside certain academic circles and fringe political movements, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the general perception that the Marxist model failed with it) its street credibility has fallen even among the radical left. Today, most of the regular patrons of Oakland’s Marxist library are middle-aged.

Patenaude attributes this in part to a general apoliticization of American society, and to the fact that, contrary to his own youth, most young American radicals seem to be pursuing one form or another of anarchism. Marxism, he says, is a very hard sell these days.

“Marxism does not lend itself to marketing very well,” said Patenaude. “The marketing problem has been to effectively — not really redefine it — but correctly define it.”

A skeptic, the director does not believe the revolution will happen in his lifetime, at least not in the conventional perception of a single event, “the seizing of the winter palace kind of moment,” as he refers to it. So for now, the Marxist library on Telegraph functions as a refuge for old red birds and a museum, a testimony to utopian ideals. But who knows about the future.

“We hope to advance the movement until there’s a popular resurgence,” the director said with a smile. “Play a role in it, and at some point become the main library in California after the revolution.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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