When Erwin Marquit ran for governor on the Communist Party ticket in 1974, he knew he didn’t stand a chance.
But U.S. forces were in Vietnam and the DFL candidate, Gov. Wendell Anderson, was perceived by the party as “pro-war and catering to the monopolies on economic policies,” he said.
So for the first time in 32 years, with fewer than 200 members in Minnesota, the Communists fielded a candidate.
“That night, we’d watch each precinct come in, and we could say, ‘Oh, John didn’t vote,’ ” Marquit said, chuckling. He came in sixth of eight candidates with 3,570 votes.
Still, the way he figures, “I got about the same number of votes per campaign dollar as the winner.”
Marquit, who hasn’t made quite as much news since then, probably remains the state’s most famous Communist. Now, at 88, his doctors have told him he has “weeks, not months” to live, a prognosis that soon will go to “days” as two blood cancers erode his health.
Marquit was a longtime professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, and also taught a controversial class on Marxism for several years.
He was principal founder of the Marxist Education Press, which offers many of its 35 books available without charge online.
He gets blood and platelet infusions several times a week, but said he feels no discomfort. Even a crooked spine — a result of childhood malnutrition — can’t hide his height. As he settled into an easy chair in his small apartment near downtown Minneapolis, names, dates and details spilled from him easily, relating a history that he says remains largely unnoted, because of the taint that often trails communism.
“We tend to bury our history,” he said, with a smile.
Early force for integration
One, two, three, Young Pioneers are free./We’re fighting for the working class/Against the bourgeoisie./Four, five, six, we’re happy Bolsheviks.
Marquit’s voice is true, even as his impromptu rendition of a childhood Communist anthem trails off. He was born into communism, his father emigrating from Russia as a child in 1906.
Marquit, born in 1926 in New York City, moved with his family in 1931 to the United Workers Cooperative Colony, an East Bronx community of almost 700 working class families, many of whom were members of, or at least sympathetic to, the Communist Party.
Even more intriguing: The colony’s buildings were the only racially integrated housing units in New York City, Marquit said.
“White workers defending themselves from black workers was seen as the biggest hurdle to organizing [unions],” he said. “The party had to break down the color barrier.”
In such surroundings, “everything was politicized, including the children,” Marquit said. So when he, three white friends and a black friend were denied access to a nearby public swimming pool, “we jumped the turnstiles and ‘freed’ the pool,” he said with a smile. In 1939, the 13-year-old joined others picketing at Ebbets Field, demanding that the Brooklyn Dodgers hire black baseball players.
(Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier, joining the Dodgers in 1947.)
Finally fitting in
In September 1973, Marquit hosted a fundraiser cocktail party for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Fund, for the Indians charged in connection with the occupation of Wounded Knee, S.D., that year. The big draw was Angela Davis, the black Communist and lightning rod of the radical left, who stayed in his home that night.
The risks of backlash always were there, but Marquit said he rarely feared for his own safety. He said he no longer gets any negative reactions to being a Communist. “I feel welcome in places I wouldn’t have been years ago. We’re actually really mainstream. We’re not out in the streets demonstrating like in Greece.”
The work at hand is “to build up a caucus in Congress that will curtail the power of the wealthy,” he said.
While acknowledging that Democrats as well as Republicans show no aversion to large infusions of cash, “the constituencies are quite different, as to who’s willing to make concessions to the working class.”
By the way, he added, “I hate the term ‘middle class.’ Class always meant the role of a person in the process of production.”
If you are producing something, you are a member of the working class, he explained. He said that right-wing interests have been incredibly successful in forging a divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers, so that no one in the middle class wants to consider themselves working class.
His campaign’s legacy
Apart from the University of Minnesota’s attempt to deny him a leave of absence to campaign, Marquit said, he can’t recall any unpleasantness from his gubernatorial campaign.
“I liked the opportunity to travel all over the state and talk to people from so many different backgrounds,” he said.
And his campaign did leave a legacy.
He demanded the removal of employment application clauses that made job applicants swear that they were not, nor would they become, members of the Communist Party during their employment. At least three mining companies on the Iron Range used such clauses, which violated Minnesota ethics law.
Marquit, with the aid of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, got the companies to agree to remove the clauses. But then he learned that the companies failed to tell employees that they no longer were bound by the restriction. So, he and two comrades drove to Mountain Iron, Minn., slipped through the entrance of the Minntac Mine, hitchhiked to the center of the vast property and began handing out fliers to the workers.
When guards showed up, “I told them that the company is in violation of the law and that as candidate for governor, I was concerned.” The next day, the company posted notices that the clause was no longer in force.
A Woody Guthrie signoff
Neither FBI surveillance nor being blacklisted for jobs ever caused him to deny his principles, even as the party “went underground” during the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously accused American Communists of treason.
Back then, he said, when someone called a party meeting, “there was a knock on the door and a messenger would hold up a piece of paper that told when and where.”
And as to communism’s failures? “The main problem with centralized planned economies is that they didn’t begin with a viable model,” he said. “They all adopted the Soviet model, which was a premature model,” lacking the information system necessary for successful planning. The need to interact with Western technology has only made the challenges worse.
Still, he said, communism can work. “Yes, of course.”
He just won’t be around to see it.
He sent an e-mail to family members and friends nationwide “informing them of the imminence of my demise,” with a link to his online memoirs: tinyurl.com/q5uv7yz. (His wife, Doris, also a former U professor, died in 2014; he has one son, Carl, two stepchildren and four step-grandchildren.) At almost 600 pages, the memoir is as much a history of communism here as a document of his life.
“I ended the e-mail with a link to the Woody Guthrie song ‘So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,’ which will be sung at my memorial,” he said, followed by the Communist Party anthem, which begins:
Arise ye workers from your slumbers/Arise ye prisoners of want/For reason in revolt now thunders.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185