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Marxist Library Keeps the Struggle Alive By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday September 30, 2005

While the world-wide proletariat struggle may have seen better days, there is a museum in Oakland making sure socialism’s bygone era will never be forgotten. 

Stepping inside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library at 6501 Telegraph Ave. is like entering an alternate universe. Gone are any notions of the red menace, axis of evil, or heroic entrepreneurs blazing a trail to prosperity. 

At Niebyl-Proctor, Brezhnev is presented as a matinee idol, North Korea has the makings of a utopian society and heroes carry union cards and always fight for the working man. 

“We’re preserving the history of people who led valiant struggles and have just been erased,” said the library’s Executive Director Bob Patenaude. “We keep their memory alive.” 

Niebyl-Proctor’s holdings include about 15,000 books, more than 20,000 pamphlets and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with oral histories of progressive activists from the early 20th century.  

The bulk of the collection was donated by the estate of Karl Niebyl, a Marxist economics professor who escaped from Nazi Germany and came to the Bay Area late in life to teach at San Jose State. 

After his death in 1985, Niebyl’s friends stored his 253 cartons of books and pamphlets in the basement of a San Jose bookstore while they searched for a showplace, said Edith Laub, an early museum volunteer and now, along with Patenaude, one of its two paid staffers. 

With donations from supporters and technical assistance from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, the collection moved into Berkeley’s Finnish Hall in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the library inherited the papers of Roscoe Proctor, a Berkeley labor organizer, and the Niebyl-Proctor library was born.  

Space and money constraints keep the library from updating its collection, but when it comes to materials on progressive and Marxist causes up to the 1980s, Niebyl-Proctor is loaded. 

Inside the library’s 58 file drawers full of pamphlets, one can find the 1933 Manifesto of the Young Communist League of the United States, urging America’s youth to “Fight for a Soviet U.S.A.”, or a 1948 report on North Korea, heralding the “People’s Revolution” there and forecasting a peaceful reunification after the inevitable financial ruin for the American-dominated south. 

Pamphlets were a common tool of communist governments and their allies abroad to promote Marxist views across the globe, Patenaude said. 

“Sure this is pure communist propaganda, but it was to counter U.S. propaganda, which is just as misleading and sometimes even more vile,” he said. 

The library is also home to an extensive archive. Inside the drawers are original Black Panther street posters decrying the “kidnapping” of its leader Bobby Seale by “FBI Pigs With Drawn Guns.” Also available are first-hand accounts of a 1947 riot in Peekskill, New York, when the left-wing African American entertainer Paul Robeson tried to give an outdoor concert, and the original speech recited in 1945 by Russian diplomat Nikolai Novikov before a packed house at Madison Square Garden honoring those who had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. 

“What people don’t often realize is that these were huge mass movements,” Patenaude said. “They might seem a little hokey now, but these ideas drive the world for decades.” 

The library is constantly receiving book donations and updating its collection. Besides the collected works of Marx and Engels, Niebyl-Proctor contains sections unfathomable in most libraries, like psychology in the former Soviet Union. 

Laub said the library gets the occasional visit from UC Berkeley researchers, but most of the patrons are locals who just want to browse. On a recent Tuesday, the only visitor from noon until 2 p.m. was Chris Kavanagh, a middle school teacher and Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner. 

“As a Green Party activist, I’m fascinated by the mass movements on the left and what led to their demise,” said Kavanagh, as he was reading a copy of Socialism and the Great War. 

The only drawback, Kavanagh said, is that the library doesn’t allow patrons to check out materials. 

“It isn’t easy for a Marxist library to survive in a capitalist county,” said Patenaude, who made his living as a purchasing manager for several local businesses before taking over the library. In 2002, the library received $61,204 in contributions, but spent over $74,320, according to state records. 

“Fundraising is always front and center,” he said. “We lose a lot of time we could spend on political work just trying to keep the place afloat.” 

The library’s biggest asset is its two-story building on Telegraph Avenue, a gift from an anonymous supporter.  

To increase its cash flow and raise its profile, the library has recently begun renting space to local left-leaning political groups like the Alameda County Green Party, the Communist Party USA and the Peace and Freedom Party. 

Although Marxism might not be the potent political force it once was, its adherents across the country are organizing to save relics of past glories in hopes that a new golden era might not be far away. There is a Marxist reading room in New York City, Patenaude said, and Marxist libraries were being planned in Sacramento and Chicago. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Patenaude. He argues that U.S. policies aren’t sustainable and if the political tide turns, Niebyl-Proctor will be around to let people know about library’s its roots. 

“We’re maintaining the history of our class,” he said. “The working class and their fight against the bad guys.” 


The Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday or by appointment. 6501 Telegraph Ave.