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Joining a political party or group for the first time – Starting a collection of personal accounts for the Left Archive November 23, 2020

Posted by leftarchivist in Uncategorized.
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As noted a few weeks back:

For some time now we’ve been thinking about the ways the Archive could begin to collate first-hand political reminiscences or observations. Parts of that might be to look at people’s first political activity, their experiences of first being part of a campaign or a political party. Others might be how political life went for them in one party or group or another and so on.

This week we’d be very grateful for contributions about people’s experience of first joining a political party or group.

For myself I noted that I met a former school friend in a pub in Howth one evening. I hadn’t seen him in a year or two and we started talking about politics. I expressed my attachment to various anarchist figures and while he wasn’t dismissive he made the point that if I was genuinely interested in doing something political I should think about joining the Workers’ Party.

I’m not sure what happened next though thinking about it I think we must have exchanged home phone numbers and he likely rang me up to go to a meeting of the local cumann of the party. I’m not sure there was any great consideration on my part about what was a fairly big step – I was happy enough with the outline of the politics of the party, even as someone with a Republican tilt to my politics, and the emphasis was, from him, on work on the ground, in the local area and linking that into broader concerns. It was very very pragmatic, almost, and this was presented as a virtue, mundane. I think that for me the significance of the step was the sense of actually doing something as distinct from talking about it as I had previous to that (I should add that my family was broadly supportive having an experience of members of the British Labour Party and my father being involved in Sinn Féin in the 1950s according to himself and having a slight involvement at CPGB Summer Camps through working in London a little later, though he was somewhat dismissive of the latter experience). I recall being welcomed in and a friendly reception but the point being made that this was a probationary basis.

However from that point on I attended meetings there regularly and to all intents and purposes was treated as a full-blown member.

There was another aspect, since there were a series of educational classes in Gardiner Place for prospective members. I have a feeling that I went to just a handful of them. I’ve no clear memory what they entailed and no notes from then. Reading accounts of earlier members and the emphasis placed on the educational process that seems to have been largely absent. In fact I seem to recall that I didn’t managed to make a couple of them and that the local cumann was happy enough to discretely wave me in anyhow.

That said the one and only time I saw Seán Garland close at hand in that period was while in the room at one of those classes, when he poked his head around the door, took one look at the assembled multitude, and promptly retreated.

And that was the probation period after which I received my party card, which I still have somewhere and which I remember meant a lot (if anyone has examples of party membership cards for any party they would be very welcome – we could post them up with names obscured). Little ‘stamps’ that went into it on payment of weekly subs.

So there I was a fully signed up card carrying member of the Workers’ Party and all of this before I was twenty.

In the next post in this series party life will be considered, but for the moment all contributions on the topic of joining from members of all parties and groups are very welcome.

You can post contributions directly here in the thread below or on the Left Archive at this link.

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1. EWI - November 24, 2020

Never had a memory of ‘joining’ a certain party, as I just grew up with it from an early age and never knew a time when there wasn’t elections on (this was the early Eighties, after all). Party paraphenalia always around the house – I still miss the hamburger stickers – with the father involved as one of the tireless workers who should be the backbone of Irish parties.

As soon as I hit my teens I was being dragged out to cumann meetings in a cold GAA hall on dark nights, and into canvasses and counts.

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roddy - November 24, 2020

What was the “certain party”?

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EWI - November 24, 2020

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roddy - November 24, 2020

How did you get away from them?

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WorldbyStorm - November 24, 2020

That’s really interesting EWI. A whole subject in itself, people who start out with their parent’s involvement and where they then go.

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EWI - November 24, 2020

The Reynolds broom – and it really was a clear-out – was a wake-up call that something wasn’t right in the party (obviously, not a whole lot of piercing critiques getting airtime before that of the former Free State or of the establishment parties). Followed by the return of Ahern and the others.

The banality of college politics was obvious when I got to third-level, though I could easily have done well for myself if I had joined Ógra, given everything in my FF background. First radical issues and meetings were a self-education project through those years.

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EWI - November 24, 2020

That’s really interesting EWI. A whole subject in itself, people who start out with their parent’s involvement and where they then go.

Why people did or didn’t change parties – once they know better – is an interesting topic. And not just for the particular drama that was the journey from ’60s SF to the Irish Labour Party!

Much like the situation with Mormons, I’m apparently still on the FF books, which came in handy a couple of years ago when I wanted to go see something up close from historical interest.

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2. Joe - November 24, 2020

Where and when to start. Grew up in a middle class household in the sixties and seventies. In a little middle-class housing development in Kilbarrack. When I was a young kid we were surrounded by farmland.
I was a good boy and I thought the world was perfect. I remember seeing pictures on the telly of rioting and destruction in the north and thinking “Why are people being so bold?”
The da was very interested in current affairs. He was a CJH FF supporter. But never a member afaik. My folks met in Ailtirí na hAiséirighe. They actually intended to bring the kids up through Irish but gave up on that because I think of the impracticality of it. But the cúpla focal was part of our upbringing for sure. Both sincere and devout Catholics too. Go ndéana Dia trócaire orthu beirt. I líontaibh Dé go gcastar sinn.
A big Dublin Corporation housing development was built on much of the farmland around us. Kilbarrack became a mainly working class area. It was tough for us poshies. I remember a new kid asking me where I’d lived before. He couldn’t understand it when I said I’d always lived here. Him and all his neighbours came from inner city Dublin mostly. Snippets of conversation I remember: “Who’s better do you think, footballers from the flats or from the houses?”. And young lads asking each other where they used to live and answers like “North Strand” “Ballybough” “Henrietta St” and the extra respect that would be shown when a boy answered “Sherriff St”.
I was always interested in politics and the north and all that. I remember the da coming home with a few jars in him (a very rare occurrence) as the results of the ’77 general election came in. He was ecstatic with the FF landslide. He absolutely hated the coalition government and Cruise O’Brien in particular (fuelled by the fact, as he said himself, that he’d actually voted of CCO’B in a general election in ’69 I think). When CCO’B would be on the news or even quoted my da would almost spit “Bullshit. Bastard” at the screen.
So I started getting interested in the two nations idea; in revisionist takes on Irish establishment narratives of Irish history. Why? I still wonder! I honestly think it was related to looking for attention from my da. But this is about memories not psychotherapy so I’ll leave that there.
More to follow.

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roddy - November 24, 2020

I had a sister who got “interested in the two nations idea”,also to seek attention from my da but a few sharp shocks like the 69 pograms and the introduction of internment soon saw her back onside with orthadox Republicanism big time!

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Joe - November 24, 2020

The Irish mammy gets referenced a fair bit in stuff. Looks like the daddys matter too.

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3. Joe - November 24, 2020

I’ll keep going while I’m on a roll. Class. Some time in my teens I started wondering about the difference between me in my little middle class environment and the kids in the Corporation houses. And I figured out that where you end up in life is pretty much an accident of birth. So I think that was class consciousness. I was a socialist because, like, duh. To me it was obvious, I don’t know why but it was.
At O’Connell’s CBS in my teens there were three lads in my class who were members of the Provisional Na Fianna. And one in another class who I think (you could never be sure with this lad!) was a member of the Official Na Fianna. So mid seventies there was lots of politics at school – more national question than class though. Then I went to UCD and hung out with a bunch of blokes and we’d talk politics over the sandwiches at lunchtime. One of them reminded me once that I often took a strong nationalist line in those discussions. But I didn’t join anything then in my late teens, early twenties. I was quite shy and passive. Too passive to join anything. Got a job then in Dublin City Libraries. Joined the union, got onto a committee. By then, somehow I was an SFWP supporter. On the committee there was an LWR woman and an SWP chap and a Mili and memorably one time a bloke from Strabane who, in a chat after a meeting, told me he was an official unionist.
Pat McCartan, a solicitor, was the SFWP candidate in our area. I read about him and liked that he was allegedly a bit of a maverick in SFWP – representing some of the IRSP people in the Sallins trials for example. There was a general election I’m guessing ’82 or ’83 and I voted for McCartan twice. Voted for my brother who was over in London, just to annoy him, him being basically a Provo fellow traveller imho at the time.
The Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike was on and I was working in town and two days a week we had split shifts. So we were off from 1pm to 5pm and me and a few others would go down and join the picket line. More good conversations and discussions. I remember I met Joe Higgins on the picket and we had a chat and when he heard I wasn’t a member of anything he told me he’d get the local Mili to give me a bell. He never did. But by that time anyway I’m pretty sure I’d decided I was a stick.
I also went on a summer holiday to Bulgaria with the CYM around then. One of the CYMers was a first cousin of a very non-political friend of mine.
My first cousin was the WP candidate in our area in the local elections. I remember she called to the house just for a family chat and as she was leaving I said “You have my no.1 by the way”. To which she responded “Good to hear”. I had a habit of buying the CPI’s Irish Socialist and the WP’s Irish People and reading them on the train into town. So I filled out the little form in the Irish People and applied to join. And attended the classes in Gardiner Place and turned up at the house of the leading local WP activist not long after for my first branch meeting. Where I met WBS amongst others :).
Tosach maith leath na hoibre.

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WorldbyStorm - November 24, 2020

We did indeed meet there. Can you recall the content of the classes? And did you have to go to all of them? I haven’t got a clue what they involved (which may explain a lot!).

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Joe - November 24, 2020

Can’t recall. The lecturer was Kieran Connolly, a member if that’s the right word, and if I’m not mistaken, of the Harris/Smullen faction. I remember there was a bloke who used to hang around Head Office. An innocent kind of chap, can’t recall his name. Anyway he sat in on the classes for some reason and every now and again he’d say something to Connolly and start with “Mr Lecturer”. I remember Connolly saying at one stage something like “PJ, stop calling me Mr Lecturer”. I met Kieran Connolly again recently enough. He has written a biography of Sam Maguire – Kieran and Sam both being Dunmanway lads. And he has some good stories about when he joined the Party in Cork in I’d say the early seventies.
But the content iirc was general enough. It certainly wasn’t dialectical materialism or the Grundrisse (whatever that is 🙂 ) . I remember something was said about housing policy, criticising a govt scheme that was going at the time. One of the other new members asked why the Party was against it and said that he himself had availed of it. Again iirc, Connolly said that it was encouraging people, through financial grants I think, to move from Council housing and buy their own homes. And this meant that I guess, people with jobs, people with more wherewithal in every sense, were moving out and leaving a higher concentration of people with less wherewithal in the council estates and more of a danger that some estates would become sink estates. Hope that makes sense.
Only other memory is of a mention of Tony Gregory, explaining why the Party didn’t support him or the Gregory deal (basically I think that, as the song sort of goes, “it shudda been us”) and a discussion of the heroin problem in the inner city. Connolly mentioned a rumour that was doing the rounds that a WP member in town was a heroin supplier or wholesaler or something. Bullshit of course – the rumour. Funnily enough I’d heard it already from a friend in the pub. But just to reiterate, bullshit for sure, put about almost certainly by them lads with their English pins.
Don’t think I did all the classes. Missed one or two. How many were there? Six? But that didn’t matter. Unless, I guess, someone in your branch or elsewhere in the Party wanted to make it difficult for you to join. Those classes became a bone of contention anyway. Oldschoolers like the people in the Branch I joined would have seen them as important but there were rumours that in other branches and areas, people were being let join without any ‘induction’. A sign of things to come I suppose.

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roddy - November 24, 2020

When a party is “on the up” membership soars and induction doesnt really happen.Most of the “new” members wouldn’t put up with boring classes.They think its all “glamorous” things like big demos and carrying winners shoulder high out of count centres.Thing is after a while it dawns on them that a lot of time and commitment is part pf “politics” and they drift away.

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banjoagbeanjoe - November 24, 2020

True. That’s part of why I eventually drifted away!

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banjoagbeanjoe - November 24, 2020

Btw, fyi, and as if yis care, banjoagbeanjoe is Joe, if you follow. I ‘joined’ WordPress so I could like people’s comments but Joe was taken so banjoagbeanjoe. It’s an Irish language joke verse: “Bhí banjo ag Joe; Agus bhí banjo ag bean Joe; B’fhearr go deo Joe ar an mbanjo; Ná bean Joe ar an mbanjo go deo”.

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WorldbyStorm - November 25, 2020

roddy, that was one thing I did like about the WP as it transpired, that it was constituency/community work. They got that bit right in my mind. It was boring and yet the fact people saw WP people about was key. I think Seamus Costello was a big part of that, and had huge influence in respect of it not just on WP but also SF.

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rockroots - November 24, 2020

I attended similar – by the sounds of it – lectures by the WSM. Well intentioned, but heavy going. I remember lots of Venn diagrams.

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Colm B - November 25, 2020

At one of the new members classes I attended in Gardiner Place when I joined the WP in 1982, a fella said something along the lines of “Hitler wasn’t all bad … jobs, autobahns etc.” Perhaps surprisingly, the full-timer who was giving the class, dealt with it in a calm, reasoned way – briefly explaining the nature of fascism, the Holocaust etc.

In a strange way, it illustrated a good point about the WP at the time: it wasn’t just attracting pre-cooked lefties but also your average Josephine/Joe with all the contradictory opinions that people tend to have.

In the late 80s the new members classes were devolved to the constituencies. In Dun Laoghaire that really was the end of them – new recruits got one visit from a party activist to give them the basic info, but even that soon stopped. This change facilitated (but did not cause) an influx of, mainly middle class, opportunists who would later play a key role in DL. Their politics was basically slightly leftish liberalism, their main attraction to the WP was its public reps reputation as competent, it’s anti-provo stance and it’s solid record on the “social issues” such as divorce etc. In hindsight, I can see that a primary attraction for them was also the growing prospect of Gilmore winning a Dail seat bringing power and influence at least locally.

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Joe - November 25, 2020

Just one other detail. I reckon I was 25 when I joined. Like I said I was a shy, passive young man. Like Joan Armatrading said “Some move more slow but they get there just the same”.

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4. Joe - November 24, 2020

So, just for the crack.
I remember I was having a few pints in Club Uí Chadhain (the WP club) a couple of years later. Some oul lads were asking me about my experience of joining the party. So I told them I remember walking up Gardiner St on my way to new members’ classes one evening. On a corner of Gardiner St and Mountjoy Square there is a big house belonging to the Vincent De Paul Society. In the window above the Georgian(?) door was a big plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As I passed by, I asked the BVM to give me a sign if I was straying from the correct path. As I looked at the statue I saw it stir. Her left hand rose and she gave me a clenched fist salute and a rather saucy wink. And I knew then I was doing the right thing.
That got a laugh … and a couple of pints.

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Tomboktu - November 24, 2020

That deserves a post all by itself!

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5. Colm B - November 25, 2020

I had completely forgotten about this until this thread went up, but the first political organisation I joined was not the WP but the Celtic League. As a teenager with leftish tendencies but coming from an Irish speaking family with strong cultural/political nationalist roots, I was attracted to the Celtic solidarity message of that alliance of small,
largely leftist, nationalist groups from the Celtic countries. They had very strong anti-nuclear position cos of Carnsore, Sellafield and similar issue in Brittany.

By the time I was around 18 though, I was heading rapidly for stickidom and shedding the nationalism at speed. For some reason, I thought my new comrades might find out my shameful secret so, rather than just not renewing my subscription, I sent a formal letter of resignation to the poor Celtic League declaring my allegiance to socialism and my renunciation of nationalism. And I soon bought into Smullen’s “nuclear power station in every county” line as well!
Maybe I should have stayed in the Celtic League 😀

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Joe - November 25, 2020

I think the current (geddit?) WP are pro-nuclear power now.

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Colm B - November 25, 2020

Yes I noticed that. I don’t think the party had an officially pro-nuclear policy in the 80s but the Smullen group definitely pushed it.
I think that changed a bit in later 80s with focus on Sellafield and growth of environmental politics, the waning influence of Harris/Smullen faction etc.

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roddy - November 25, 2020

Are you giving them a plug there?

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Colm B - November 25, 2020

The Celtic League, the WP or Harris/Smullen faction? None of the above I’m afraid, though if I had to choose, I’d go for the the old Celts!

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roddy - November 25, 2020

Sorry but my “plug” comment was a reply to Joe’s “current” WP comment!

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banjoagbeanjoe - November 25, 2020

Jeez, Roddy, that’s shocking.

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Colm B - November 25, 2020

I prefer it when Joe and Roddy go hammer and tongs over the national question, these puns are killing me!

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Paul Culloty - November 25, 2020

The Celtic League are still officially on the go, believe it or not, though can’t say I’ve ever heard of Cathal O’Luain or Caoimhín O’Cadhla:

https://www.celticleague.net

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Colm B - November 25, 2020

Thanks Paul, that’s interesting, hadn’t heard about them in years.
When I was a kid my parents used to bring me to a kind of weekend conference called An Comhdhail Ceilteach. Don’t know who organised it, it was an annual event. It was some sort of pan-celtic cultural get together.

I remember hearing people there speak Manx Gaelic for the first time – sort of sounded like people speaking Irish with an English accent.

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Paul Culloty - November 25, 2020

Some more snippets here – very Scouse, alright:

https://www.saysomethingin.com/manx/level1/challenge1

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6. roddy - November 25, 2020

WBS,SF in Belfast and Derry were famous for their constituency work ,delivered from a chain of offices in often near derelict buildings.The advice workers were virtually all from the ranks of the unemployed themselves and forged an instant connection with the people of deprived areas.

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7. roddy - November 25, 2020

Just another VOLT face from the sticks!

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Joe - November 26, 2020

Watt the fook are you talking about?

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roddy - November 26, 2020

I’m trying to generate a debate here.

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Joe - November 26, 2020

More power to ye.

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8. alanmyler - November 26, 2020

Joining a party was a process of almost 3 decades of frustration on my part, arguing endlessly with anyone who would engage about politics, especially after a few drinks. But it was the GFC in 2008 that pushed me into activity, the fear that my kids were going to live in a worse future than I had experienced myself, the realisation that nobody was going to do anything about it unless we all do something about it. So in my naivety I applied to join the Labour party in the run up to the 2009 local elections. I was allocated to the Navan branch and spent a very enjoyable few weeks out canvassing with one of the local candidates, talking to people on the doorsteps. Then after the election I went over to the Trim count centre, which was very exciting, the tally, the hubbub. Our candidate didn’t get a seat on the council but Labour had a few wins in the county so the feeling was quite upbeat. So that in the aftermath of the election, nothing. No activity. No meetings. And eventually a branch meeting which I found very unsettling where I realised that the ambition of the party was limited to a tiny horizon and that the big issues and questions that had motivated me to get actively involved in politics just weren’t on the radar. The final straw was an invitation to visit the party conference in a big hotel in Mullingar where myself and a handful of other newbies were invited into the back bar where the party bigwigs were gathered, a meet and greet with the notables as it were. Not my scene at all. So I resigned shortly afterwards and started looking more seriously at alternatives. I went over to Dundalk to hear Kieran Allen promote his book about the crisis, but nothing about him or the SWP attracted me. I went up to Dublin to attend a CPI public meeting which was very good I thought, but the CPI seemed too small. Incidentally I realised later on, having met him via the CLR, that I had been sitting beside SoS at that CPI meeting. I had been reading the CLR for a good while by then and found the discussions very engaging. I found myself agreeing with Garibaldy a lot. I liked WBS’s positive but critical assessment of the party. I read The Lost revolution book. So I applied to join the WP via email. No response. I applied again. And then one saturday I was visited at home by the national organiser, we had a chat, and a couple of weeks later I was invited to a meeting in a hotel in Navan where I was sat down across the table from Sean Garland. I almost shat myself. But I came away from the meeting very impressed about the seriousness of the party. So with the odd up and down in the meantime I’m still a member 10 years later. Not actively so these days, but still paying my party dues. By standing order these days, the era of the stamps on the back of the party membership card has passed.

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9. gypsybhoy69 - December 5, 2020

Looking back at it being a teenager back in the 80’s was therapy waiting to happen, especially one full of angst about lot of things: nuclear war, The Miners strike, nuclear energy, The Hunger Strikes, Reagan, Thatcher, Haughey, the shootings of the Pope, Regan and Lennon, The National Front, Clapham Common, The Falklands War, The Stardust, Heysel Stadium, Sabra/Shatila, etc, etc.

I must have always leant left looking at those things mentioned here. Locally the WP were active and very involved in a local issue about the housing in Finglas South. Looking back at it I was attracted to the national question but local issues outweighed that and De Rossa seemed to understand and want to represent an area like Finglas South. That’s how I ended up joining the WP. Haven’t ever regretted joining it when I did. When I was a member I didn’t always agree with it but I always remember open discussion at branch and all the way through to Ard Fheiseanna. But I have also learnt not look back at it in any nogalistic way. You can’t always look back at some of the opinions/positions you took back when you were younger in a good light but it can’t be bad if you interrogate that in your head.

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10. What was it like in a party or group as a new member? – A call for personal accounts to build a collection for the Left Archive | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - December 14, 2020

[…] As noted previously… […]

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