“I’m pretty far to the left,” Al Strasburger told us with a note of caution over the phone the other day, before we met him at his Oakland Street home for an interview.
Looking back, we now see what a considerate gesture this was. Clearly the man has a sense of his own toxicity, as measured by today’s political standards. He was gently trying to spare us from… well, a shock, no doubt.
Of course, the warning only whetted our interest. What passes for the ideological “spectrum” in America today is actually a range from the barely-left-of-center to the far right. We thought it would be refreshing to meet a real hairshirt liberal, the kind who might actually resemble the bogeymen that far-right radio screechers have gotten rich warning us about.
So we eagerly made our way past the cartoonishly overgrown yardwhich, swear to Allah, Strasburger maintains with a sickle, because he doesn’t own a lawnmowerand into his musty, poster-lined living room, where a two-foot-high stack of Cuban art magazines stood in a corner.
A couple of hours later we departed, having met perhaps the most charming, erudite, Chevy-driving, Phillies-loving defender of Stalin we are ever likely to encounter in these parts.
And yeah, the hair was standing up on the backs of our necks.
“You could call me a communist,” Strasburger says, settling into an armchair and apparently not wanting to quibble over labels. But he’s never been a member of the Communist Party, and considers it insufficiently determined to remake the world into one in which workers control the means of production. Their idea of being on the left, he says, is to endorse the Democrat.
“I’m a revolutionary socialist,” he says. “I see the world as a class struggle, the rich against the poor. I want major change to this society.”
Violent change? “I think the workers should seize power, because that’s a prerequisite for a successful society,” he says. “There has to be a great revolution because the powers that be will not give up control without a fight.”
He’s just getting warmed up.
“Most wealth tends to be inherited,” says Strasburger, a 74-year-old who inherited the house he lives in. “In most cases, CEOs come from wealth.” Asked to explain the rackfuls of magazines that come out each month packed with stories about entrepreneurial success stories and the soaring numbers of newly minted American millionaires, Strasburger is dismissive. Lies of the corporate-controlled media, he says. “Basically, it’s a myth that people can make money in any serious way,” he says.
Strasburger regards Castro (he refers to him as ‘Fidel’) as a hero. He gets rhapsodic about the art, culture and healthcare system in Cuba, which he’s visited five times, despite the fact that “it’s been tough for Americans who are in solidarity with the Cuban revolution to travel back and forth.
“Cuba is the most lied-about country of the last 30 or 40 years,” he says. “Most Americans think of Cuba as an outlaw nation. It’s a beacon to the Third World. It’s a small agricultural country that successfully and courageously stood up to U.S. imperialism.”
He also considers the Soviet Union a “successful,” if not problem-free, experiment in socialism that the West wrecked, much to the dismay of the Russian people. He parries questions about the soul-crushing aspects of centrally planned societies that imprison their citizens for speaking their minds and shoot those who try to leave. Even Uncle Joe wasn’t such a bad guy, he says.
“The historical verdict on Stalin has not really come in yet, the good and the bad,” says Strasburger. But when it comes, the bad won’t be seen as that bad, apparently. Stalin’s purges? “There’s a lot of exaggeration to that,” he says.
Whew. And all this comes from a man who speaks in rational tones, offers his guests a beverage, and shows off his collection of Mark Twain’s writings.
Strasburger, who has never traveled across the Atlantic and does not use the Internet, lives in the house his parents bought in 1943, when he was 11. His father, Richard Strasburger, was a railway mail clerk who once ran for national president of his union on an “anti-racist platform,” Strasburger says.
The elder Strasburger lost his job for refusing to take a loyalty pledge instituted under Truman at the height of anti-Communism, his son says, and was later a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit with Alger Hiss, the accused Soviet spy and convicted perjurer, over whether the federal government could retroactively deny them their pensions. (They won their lawsuit in 1972. A story in the New York Times reporting on Strasburger and Hiss’ victory said the Civil Service Commission claimed it had revoked Strasburger’s pension because he’d made false statements about Communist party membership on employment records.)
Strasburger’s mother, Besse Brown Strasburger, used to sell the Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, on Red Bank’s West Side, and was an avid writer of letters to newspaper editors. One, in the New York Times in 1958, derided America’s foreign-aid spending to protect itself from the Soviets. She wrote:
“Are the Russians so diabolically clever that we must fear them and also so incredibly stupid as to attack us when they possess their own immense resources and have everything to lose by starting a war?”
Young Al graduated from Red Bank High School (he can still instantly recall the theme song) and earned degrees in English from Washington Square College (now part of NYU) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, two hotbeds of radical left thinking. But Strasburger wasn’t much involved in all that. “I was a very serious student,” he says. “I wasn’t part of the social scene in any major way.” What he was into was bluegrass music, and later became president of a Lester Flatt/Earl Scruggs Fan Club. He and another guy were its only members.
After a couple of summers spent working at the Eisner uniform factory (now the site of the Galleria on Bridge Avenue), Strasburger embarked on a 37-year career at the state agency now known as DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services). He also taught English for six years at Monmouth College (now a university).
On the side, he was a peace activist, and helped organize the first anti-nukes protests in Monmouth County, in 1962. A march from Red Bank down Broad Street to the Friends Meeting House in Shrewsbury had to be re-planned when the Quakers got the heebie-jeebies, he recalls. “They said what we were doing was too violent. Carrying signs!”
That activism has continued unabated. For the past 30 years, Strasburger has distributed the anti-capitalist newspaper Workers World, a publication in which pretty much every photograph shows people holding up hand-scrawled signs (“PREGNANT WOMEN NEED FACTS NOT FICTION”) or street-width banners (“LEGALIZATION FOR ALL!!”). And when there isn’t a placard, there’s a close-up of a poster (“LIBETAD PARA LOS CINCO”) or group of people with fists in the air standing in front of a poster.
Strasburger hands out the newspaper at the unemployment office in Neptune. And how do the jobless masses respond? “People say, ‘Does it have any jobs in it?’ I say, ‘Not until we have a revolution.'”
Like Workers World, Strasburg’s house is a monument to the power of Magic Markers, construction paper and thumbtacks. He uses them to transform wall space from acres of yellowed wallpaper into acres of hackneyed protest chantsthough much of the revolutionary artwork designed by professionals is quite striking.
The placards Strasburger uses more frequently are scattered on the floor of his front porch. Those get trotted out for his weekly anti-war protests outside Fort Monmouth. When they began immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the protesters were derided by passersby, but “that’s changed considerably,” Strasburger says. Today, even people emerging from the fort who used to give the protesters the finger now give them a thumbs-up, he says.
That’s on Saturdays. On Thursdays, he’s got an anti-war group that protests at the corner of Broad Street and Harding Road, near the Post Office. The U.S. military, he says, “stands for conquering the world for the ruling class” and American arms dealers. “I don’t necessarily blame the GIs.”
We ask Strasburger about a poster reading, “George W. Bush, World’s Worst Terrorist.” “Eliminating social services programs, I would call that terrorism,” he says. Terrorism of the kind that would rank Bush above bin Laden and al Zarqawi? “They have their rhetoric, and we have ours,” he says.
Strasburger chafes at consumerist life in America. So we asked him about the Chevy in the driveway, the first brand-new car he’s ever purchased. (That is, the dealer told him it was new, and you never know with plutocratic car dealers.) Anyway, “the powers that be kill public transportation,” Strasburger says. So why buy the car? “I need it, like everybody else, to get around.”
Ever feel like you’re fighting the last war, Comrade Al?
“I don’t acept that communism is dead,” he says. “It’s certainly easy to feel isolated and sometimes mistreated. But I think Marxists are inherently optimistic. You can’t give into your feelings of fear. You have to take the long view.”