One Sunday in May 1972 I drove Fred Blair, the aged chairman of the Wisconsin Communist Party, to Madison. He’d been invited to speak to a group of academic leftist researchers about Wisconsin party history. He was flattered by the invitation but contemptuous of their strictly past-tense interest. Communists were endlessly fascinating to the new left, who condescendingly thought of them as political dinosaurs who had a crack at seizing state power in the thirties but blew it. Fred was bemused.
A dozen people were seated around a table in a meeting room at the Downtown Y. The format was open-ended question and answer. The session was taped. Initial questions were timid- where he grew up, how he became political, his many runs for public office. Then someone broke the ice with a question about whether the party’s support for the jailing of Trotskyites in the forties under the sedition laws in Minneapolis- which were later used to lock up CP leaders- was ill-considered. Fred would only concede that “mistakes were made,” and painted the Trotskyites as near fascists. Nobody was convinced.
More nuanced questions about Marxist principles and Leninist strategy came to predominate. There was a respectful atmosphere, eager students at the foot of some elder master. But Fred hated the “eminence grise” role, and ended the session by promoting an Angela Davis fund-raising car wash.
I thought the whole trip a waste of time, but he seemed energized. On the way back we stopped to buy a jug of rhine wine, which he loved to sip all day. A sign in the liquor store window said “Heartbreak Glue.”