Two Exemplary Partisans of the Left

Patrick M. Quinn

Posted February 23, 2022

Mike Parker (Photo: Jim West)
Jim Flynn (Photo: Bryce Edwards, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I was very saddened by the news that Mike Parker, a revolutionary socialist for more than six decades, passed away in Richmond, California on January 15, 2022. I had last seen and talked with Mike in June 2021 at a party attended by more than 100 mainly young radicals in the backyard of the house of my younger daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Tim, in Oakland, California. When I was talking with Mike I realized that he was very ill. After Mike died an excellent account of his life by Gay Semel was published in the journal Jacobin.

I did not really know Mike very well until 1986 when the two different political organizations that he and I belonged to merged with a third organization to form Solidarity. The three were Socialist Unity, of which I was a member, the International Socialists (IS), of which Mike was a member, and Workers Power. All three had their origin in the Socialist Workers Party. The Socialist Workers Party had split into two parties in 1940 following a rancorous debate over different interpretations of what kind of a society then prevailed in the Soviet Union. One wing of the SWP maintained that the Soviet Union was a “workers’ state,” no matter how degenerated it had become (a position that I eventually supported) and the other wing (which Mike Parker eventually supported) insisted that the Soviet Union was no longer a “workers’ state.”

Although I did not know Mike very well until 1986 I had long been aware of his political and labor activism. Mike was a year older than me. He had become a socialist in 1959. I had become a socialist in 1961. Mike’s parents had been socialists. My grandparents and uncle, who had raised me, had been Democrats. My grandfather and uncle, who lived in a small Wisconsin town, were active members, respectively, of the Plumbers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). I joined my first labor union, the NALC, in 1959, when I was a senior in high school and worked part-time for the Post Office. I was won to socialism in 1961 by my political science professor, James R. Flynn (1934-2020), during my sophomore year at Whitewater State College (today the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater).

Jim Flynn, Mike Parker, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, and Joel Geier, the co-founder with Hal Draper of the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) and later the International Socialists in Berkeley, California, had been members of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) and the Student Peace Union at the University of Chicago during the late 1950s.

Recently I learned of the death of Jim Flynn. Jim was an extraordinary person in every respect. Born in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 1934 as the son of a working class, self-educated Irish-American father from Missouri, Jim had grown up in Washington, D.C. In 1952 he won a scholarship to study at the University of Chicago from which he graduated in 1956. He then began graduate studies in political science at the University of Chicago. While an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he had joined the Socialist Party, the Young Peoples Socialist League, and the Student Peace Union and was the co-chair of the NAACP branch at the University of Chicago. He earned a PhD in political science in 1958 and began teaching at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky, where he became the chair of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He was forced out of Eastern Kentucky University in 1961 because of his political activity. In 1961 Jim accepted a position teaching political science at Whitewater State College. I enrolled in his political science course and, with five other students, founded the Peace Studies Club of which Flynn was the faculty advisor. During the year, Jim Flynn won me to socialism.

At the end of the 1961-1962 academic year I transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Jim Flynn was fired by Whitewater State College because of his political activities. He managed to secure a teaching job at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois. However, at the end of the 1962-1963 academic year Jim was fired by Lake Forest College because of his political activities. In 1963 he decided to move to New Zealand, where the political climate was not nearly so “McCarthyite” as it was in the United States. He got a job at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. And in 1967 he moved to a faculty position at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Eventually he became a world-renowned academic. He continued to be a committed socialist activist until his death on December 11, 2020 at the age of 86.

In 1965 I participated in the Civil Rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Among the hundreds of people who had come south to work in the Civil Rights movement was a young Black student from Lake Forest College whom I worked closely with. One day as we were chatting he mentioned that he had been a student of Professor James Flynn at Lake Forest College and that Flynn had won him to socialism. Astounded, I told him that I, too, had been won to socialism by Jim Flynn.

Shortly before Jim Flynn passed away in 2020 I called him in New Zealand and we had a long, interesting, wide-ranging conversation.

As I noted above, Mike Parker had joined the Young People’s Socialist League at the University of Chicago in 1959. The YPSL was the youth group of the Socialist Party. It supported the political views of Max Shachtman, who had been the leader of one wing of the Socialist Workers Party during the 1940 debate over the nature of the Soviet Union, the wing that did not consider the Soviet Union to be a “workers’ state.” Over the course of the next decade and a half, from 1940 to 1955, Schachtman and his followers moved increasingly to the right.

In 1967 I joined the Young Socialists Alliance (YSA), the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party, because I was impressed by the very good work the YSA had been doing in building the movement against the U.S. War in Vietnam. In 1965, I had been among the founding members of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) in Madison, Wisconsin, while I was a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1964, Mike Parker moved from Chicago to Berkeley, California, where he pursued graduate studies in political science at the University of California-Berkeley and was an activist in the anti-war movement, the “Free Speech Movement,” the Peace and Freedom Party, and in many other struggles for progressive social change. He also joined the Independent Socialist Club (ISC) and the International Socialists (IS) in Berkeley. At the beginning of the 1970s, however, he and other members of the IS moved from Berkeley to midwestern cities where they got jobs in industry. Mike moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1975 where he got a job in an auto plant and became an active member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Over the next forty years Mike became one of the founders of Labor Notes and a leader of progressive workers in the auto industry.

Although Mike and I carried out our political activities in different political organizations between 1967 and 1986 this did not deter us from becoming founding members of a new organization,\ Solidarity in 1986. Mike and I were both committed socialist activists, whose political forebears had been members of earlier socialist organizations such as the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist League of America, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party.

There can be no better tribute to Mike Parker and Jim Flynn than to emulate what they accomplished as partisans of the working class whose political lives were sustained by their vision of the ultimate attainability of a socialist society.