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“Imagine Living in a Socialist USA!” Rehabilitating a Forbidden Word

Editor’s Note: Discuss Deena Stryker’s Lunch With Fellini, Dinner With Fidel on August 2nd at the FDL Book Salon.

Portrait of Francis Goldin

Frances Goldin, editor of Imagine: Living In A Socialist USA

As a faithful reader of many so-called ‘progressive’ journals and books, my frustration with the Empire into which I was born increases daily. So many voices in the wilderness! So many groups devoted to decisive change, each with its own leader and agenda, often acting together but incapable of forming an organized whole. A mortally wounded European welfare state facing real fascists can still call upon the vigor and might of trade unions harking back more than a century. But when Volkswagen tries to unionize its U.S. factories, American bosses can prevent it, caring little that the German car manufacturer might decide to pass on creating more U.S. jobs. Enabling such behavior is a government that arms local police forces with military hardware and perfects ever better means of spying on its citizens.

Part of what makes such behavior possible is the limited exposure that progressive books can achieve. Publishing is dominated by companies beholden to corporate interests that also invest heavily in blockbuster films and reality TV to distract people from politics, knowing that progressive publishers lack the financial means required to capture widespread attention. In this landscape, the phrase ‘progressive literary agent’ is almost an oxymoron, but for Frances Goldin agenting has been part of a life of activism.

In 1950, she campaigned with the socialist W.E.B. Du Bois, he running for US Senate, she for New York State House. This was the beginning of the Red Scare, and their meetings were often attacked, but Goldin was not cowed, having been brought up in a tough Queens neighborhood. Proud of her Russian immigrant working-class background she told me: “We were discriminated against not only by the Christians, but by Jewish shopkeepers who looked down on workers.”

While raising a family, Frances Goldin helped defeat Robert Moses’ 1964 plan to build a Mid-Manhattan Expressway that would have destroyed the Lower East Side. In what she considers one of her greatest achievements, she helped create a land trust that signed 199 year low rent leases for the 300 inhabitants of Cooper Square, sheltering them from future such projects.

Goldin started her working life as a secretary for a law firm that represented many writers (they were the executors of the estates of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, among others). In six years she learned a lot about publishing, and when a friend of a friend handed her the manuscript of ‘Hustling and Other Hard Work” a story about Black lives, she ran with the opportunity to find a publisher for it. One thing led to another and by 1977 she was able to set up her own agency, whose roster today counts some of America’s finest progressive writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Norman Finkelstein, Juan Gonzalez, Frances Fox Piven and many others.

Having topped ninety, Frances Goldin can safely call herself the oldest literary agent in New York, and yet, hobnobbing with sophisticated authors did nothing to dent her activism. She has been a steadfast supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist who has spent decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 2011, during a visit to the Occupy barricades, she saw a way to advance what she refers to as her two remaining goals: seeing the United States adopt basic socialist principles such as universal health care, and freedom for Mumia. Never one to dither, with the help of long-time activists Michael and Debby Smith she signed up thirty-one prominent progressives to each write about a different way in which socialism would change American lives, the book’s royalties to be donated to the campaign for a retrial of the world-famous prisoner.

I met with Frances in a basement classroom of a Philadelphia neighborhood church when she participated in a meeting of the Free Mumia Committee, run by an impressive team of young activists. Her white hair had a streak of purple in the front, she wore a purple Free Mumia shirt, and told me she was looking forward to meeting with the prisoner the next day. Suddenly passionate she  said: “He is an extraordinary person, not only as a writer but as a human being who managed to rise above his decades-long confinement and continue writing.” The author of eight books written in prison, Mumia co-authored Imagine’s chapter on justice with Angela Davis.

Typical of a wide-ranging work that combines theory with practice, here is a quote from Golden’s preface:

The mainstream media and the powers that be have made the word ‘socialism’ frightening, foreign, unpatriotic, and menacing. It threatens their ill-gotten gains, so the idea of workers sharing in the wealth that their sweat and toil has generated has to be labeled ‘un-American’.

And, from Paul Street’s first chapter:

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