The Passion of Politics: “Pamphleteer,” The Weakerthans

Pamphleteer (from; song available here)
The Weakerthans

I’m standing on this corner
can’t get their attention
facing rush hour faces turned around.

I clutch my stack of paper,
press one to a chest, then
watch it swoop and stutter to the ground.

I’m weary with right-angles,
abbreviated daylight,
waiting for a winter to be done.

Why do I still see you
in every mirrored window,
in all that I could never overcome?

How I don’t know what I should do
with my hands when I talk to you.
How you don’t know where you should look,
so you look at my hands.
How movements rise and then dissolve,
melted by our shallow breath.
How causes dance away from me.
I am your pamphleteer.

I walk this room in time to
the beat of the Gestetner,
contemplate my next communique.

The rhetoric and treason
of saying that I’ll miss you.
Of saying “Hey, well maybe you should stay.”

Sing “Oh what force on earth could be
weaker than the feeble strength
of one*” like me remembering
the way it could have been.
Help me with this barricade.
No surrender. No defeat.
A spectre’s haunting Albert Street.
I am your pamphleteer.

* Ralph Chaplin, Solidarity Forever, 1916


Many times, speech fails to fly: it swoops and stutters to the ground. And we know that this speech is in no position to grow. The right-angles suggest hardened, structured artifice; abbreviated daylight means people themselves won’t stay out long; and our pamphleteer’s patience runs thin with each day of winter.

A few of you have asked about the appeal of Marxist politics, like as if I am supposed to diagnose a disease or something. The appeal is that, in a way, Marxist politics is the least conventional of all political sentiment today. Think about the tightrope you have to walk as a conservative or left-liberal in the US today, a tightrope most who try to be political can’t walk. We see the Right screaming about God and country and conspiracy theories, and we see the Left screaming about evil conservatives and a more peaceful world and conspiracy theories. The Right can’t walk the tightrope between two traditions that conflict in some ways: the Bible is not the Constitution. The Left can’t figure out what exactly tolerance means when reasonable people debate; anything opposed to their views must be spin.

A view of the history of the world as perpetual class struggle where history ends with the victory of the proletariat isn’t really so complicated. It’s really: we’re all meant to be equals. Anyone getting in the way of this must be wrong. And wouldn’t you know, but the very fact of law makes us all equal, especially law in a democratic society.

Point is, our pamphleteer’s principle and sentiment correspond very closely, and I’m not entirely sure this is always a bad thing. I’m no Marxist – not even close – but there are lots of factions with established power dedicated to ripping people off. Equality can’t substitute for justice ultimately, but the true form of justice may not exist in this world.

Of course, what has happened to the pamphleteer is that the tightrope has been displaced. Now instead of lying within his conception of politics, it lies within the broader question of his identity:

Why do I still see you
in every mirrored window,
in all that I could never overcome?

Who is “you?” I’m tempted to take it as any number of people. The people who the speaker wants to deal with, but is awkward – perhaps those beloved (“what I should do with my hands”). The people generally the speaker deals with (“how you don’t know where you should look”). The speaker himself, reduced to his speech (“how movements rise and then dissolve, melted by our shallow breath. how causes dance away from me”). You can say I’m reading too much into these lines to get a beloved, but something like lost love (“I’ll miss you,” “the way it could have been”) is definitely operating in the song.

How did the personal get so political? The Gestetner is a duplicating machine: love means you want to duplicate yourself. One way Aristotle conceived of giving a reason was of giving a rule that you thought would be good for those like you. This is not totalitarianism – this is the passion within all politics.

And yet we’re not all pamphleteers; we’re not like a “spectre,” we’re not our ideology. Our pamphleteer isn’t even totally sold on his project, he knows the “rhetoric and treason” of the song he’s truly singing. Is he just a guy in love that turned to politics, confusing the political with the personal? I actually don’t think so. The truth may be that the personal depends on an untruth, that in some ways our lives are our own. Many of us accept that untruth on a daily basis, concede that our principles won’t always map with our feelings, and ask someone to love us who will accept our limitation.

Our pamphleteer wants a greater unity, and it isn’t insane. What divorces him from those of us who are more personal is that he sees some aspect of love is public. It’s something in love that demands principles and sentiments add up. The image at the beginning is the correct image: faces turned both ways, the masses not recognizing themselves as a mass turned one, the lonely awkward pamphleteer – the only one that can recognize them as a mass, turned another.

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