Cover Story

Marx lives

Socialism in America still attracts some among the counterculturally audacious or embittered

Issue: "Marx isn't dead," July 19, 2003

ONE MORNING 34 YEARS AGO, my college roommate and I saw a notice in the Yale Daily News about a meeting on socialism to be held that evening in one of the university classrooms. We showed up on time and found ourselves the only ones in the room except for a solemn man precisely arranging on a front table piles of publications from the Socialist Workers Party. Saying not a word to us, he focused on squaring each stack and having the distance between each stack exactly the same. My roommate and I took one look at each other and bolted the room, heading down the stairs as the comrade, jolted from his reverie, hurried after us yelling, "Wait, wait." We didn't wait, that evening. We never went back to that particular clique. But both of us were alienated: I had grown up within Judaism and my roommate within Christianity, but neither of us had absorbed reasons beyond social custom for maintaining our allegiance. I continued drifting left, participating in "peace" marches and joining the Communist Party, before resigning from it late in 1973. My roommate drifted in another way, announcing several years after graduation that he was gay. (In college he had talked about heterosexual pursuits like the rest of us.) I don't know what has happened to him. Three weeks ago I attended "Socialism 2003," a three-day gathering of 900 leftists, most of them under 30. The International Socialist Organization, publisher of Socialist Worker, the same periodical I had seen neatly stacked in 1969, sponsored the meeting. Three decades had gone by since the last Marxist function I attended, and many have proclaimed that Marxism is dead, but judging by the enthusiasm and intensity of the folks I mingled with, Marxism is alive among some deeply alienated individuals, some red-diaper babies who respect their radical parents and hope to replicate the 1965-1974 golden age of unrest, and some graduate students in fields such as sociology and women's studies. Here are a few bits of what I saw. Thursday The conference began June 26 on the 14th floor of a Holiday Inn in Chicago, with some changes from 30 years ago in evidence. A female couple, both sporting butch haircuts, cuddled a baby. Some guys displayed tattooed arms. Books about Vietnam or Cambodia, the main squeeze three decades ago, had given way to anti-Israel tomes on the Middle East. (In the old days Israel still retained some sympathy for its socialist background.) Many speakers had names like Ahmad, Ahmed, Salim, and Mostafa. At one session socialists scorned all of the major Democratic Party presidential nominees but loudly hissed only Sen. Joseph Lieberman, "the Zionist." Much was unchanged, though. Most of the young men were pale and under-muscled and most of the young women homely, although a few socialist babes strolled through the throng surrounded by admiring swains. Buttons still proclaimed "No to war, No to racism" and "Human need, not corporate greed." Free Mumia buttons (concerning the convicted cop-killer imprisoned in Pennsylvania) had merely replaced Free Huey buttons (demanding freedom for a convicted cop-killer/Black Panther leader). Crude jokes about Richard Nixon were long forgotten but replaced by equally crude ones about the Fox News Network's case of Pentagonorrhea and our need to fear SARS: Severe acute Rumsfeld syndrome. The rhetorical tricks were familiar. When someone spoke of what we all know-"We all know that market logic is inadequate to bring about social justice"-it was clear that the speaker had no evidence to back up his statement. When something was cited as fact-"the fact that none of the promised aid [for Afghanistan] has come from the U.S."-it was almost certainly a lie. African-Americans always received patronizing praise: Salim Muwakkil said they "are not duped by the media," to the applause of an audience of 120 that apparently included only one black person. "Patriotism" and "free market" could be spoken of only with tones of scorn, and "militarism" was the all-purpose enemy. But not all militarism: Just as my comrades and I a generation ago rooted for the Vietnamese Communists, which essentially meant wanting U.S. soldiers to die, so socialist orators such as Paul D'Amato proclaimed that "the war of the Iraqi people to free themselves from U.S. domination has begun.... We're for their right to organize resistance," which essentially means their right to kill Americans. Conference participants such as Evan from Los Angeles-in a bow to both paranoia and friendliness, conference badges sported first names and home city only-insisted that demonstrators who worked mightily to maintain Saddam Hussein in power "were right about this war, right on every question." And yet, even big-talking Evan couldn't hide his puzzlement about some issues. Speakers asserted both that President Bush was lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that he and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who received the greatest volume of hissing every time his name came up) had the public-relations ability to fool most of the people most of the time. Evan rubbed together those two assertions and wondered, "If these people want to manufacture fake evidence they could do it, but they haven't, so are they believing their own lies, or what?" Evan was heading down a dangerous road: Whittaker Chambers wrote in Witness about how small questions can lead to larger ones and an eventual break with Marxist propaganda. Friday The lead speaker at the best-attended session I attended was Toufic Haddad, who raged against "the Zionist imperialists" and, when his microphone did not work for a moment, grumped about "a Zionist mike." He received not only laughter and applause but imitation; later, when an elevator lurched, one comrade said, "Zionist elevator." When comrades later debated which sessions had been most informative, John from New York praised those that "proved Zionism is the essence of capitalism and imperialism." Another attendee agreed: "The Palestinian movement, which I'm certainly no expert on, is clearly part of a great arc of anti-capitalist struggle." Understanding the great arc does wonders for self-esteem. At one session socialist babe Jennifer Rush sashayed up to a microphone to make a point, but moderator Mustafa O. first asked her to answer a question one comrade had posed: In essence, does Israel have to be wiped off the map or could an independent Palestinian state exist beside it? Ms. Rush said, "I wasn't planning to talk about that and I'm not really prepared, but I'll try." Off she raced, orating breathlessly: "You need to look in structural terms, to understand that the U.S. and Israel have as their major strategic goal imposition of a Palestinian dictatorship that will be under their control...." Five minutes later she caught a breath, sat down to thunderous applause with her face glowing, and said to a nearby admirer, "that was so great." Again, though, a few were asking-sometimes whispering-questions. Ben from Boston said, "I know we need to support the Intifada wherever it's going. That's the struggle on the ground now." But then, not enthusiastic about suicide bombings, he asked plaintively, "Is it possible it could go in a different direction?" Les Miserables lover Cindy said, "I went to see Victor Hugo's house in Paris and was totally shocked to find out he was bourgeois [she pronounced it Bush-wa, as did many conference participants]. He wrote about the suffering of the poor so I didn't expect that. I guess our lives within capitalist society are full of contradictions. Does that explain it?" At 10 p.m. organizers tried to drive conference attendees into Jam for Justice, a mix of music and angry poems that was the main entertainment for the night. Two cash bars in the room did little business and the designated poet soon sounded desperate, because few were listening. Socialists had come not to be entertained but to reach out and touch other socialists. Most seemed to be political philosophy nerds, choosing to stay inside Holiday Inn convention spaces instead of going to baseball games or other activities that the Ferris Buellers of the world prefer. Some with radical parents are merely carrying on the family business and have a lifetime of contacts. Others came to make friends with other like-minded folks and maybe, on a Friday night, hook up. While undergraduates often seemed lonely, the humanities and social sciences graduate students often displayed bitterness. Many teach sections of lecture courses for low pay and have meager job prospects, given budget limitations at mega-universities. They feel like exploited workers, as does aspiring writer Elizabeth Terzakis from San Francisco. She complained, "I have to make some money, so usually I can't find the time to write. When I do clear some time and write, nobody wants to publish it." The reason she doesn't get picked up is that publishers are committed to providing opiates for the masses: "Harry Potter presents horrible situations but then resorts to mysticism, to some higher power that we're really not expected to believe in anyway.... People descend into mysticism because there's no alternative out there in the culture ... under socialism everyone will participate in both artistic production and consumption." Ms. Terzakis hinted at some deeper bitterness as well when she spoke about how liberal political leaders assume they can hold onto radical voters. "Socialists and the Democratic Party are in an abusive relationship," she argued. "Democrats know they have us and they'll beat us because they know we won't leave. It's domestic abuse ... from people who shake your hand and pee down your pants leg at the same time." Saturday I thought about the bitterness while hitting the Holiday Inn fitness room to treadmill. A woman of college age with thick ankles and a slim book in her hand-Friedrich Engels's classic The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State-hopped onto an exercise bike and was soon pedaling as furiously as the witch in The Wizard of Oz. I don't approach young ladies in fitness rooms, but when she went to get a drink of water she noticed the WORLD shirt I wore and cooed, "Are you with the World Socialist Review?" "No, I'm with a weekly newsmagazine." "A Bush-wa publication?" "Some might say so. But I've read the book you're reading. Do you like it?" "Yes, it's helped me realize that the family is a means of exploitation, a way of preparing docile, submissive workers." "How do you know that's true?" "Engels wrote it, but our personal experience also helps to radicalize us." I swallowed and pressed the point: "Could you tell me about your experience?" She looked at me hard: "If you're a Bush-wa writer, I don't want to tell you. My father would kill me if he knew I were here." "OK, let me ask this-remember, I don't know your name-was your father preparing you to be a docile, submissive worker?" She reddened: "What do you mean by that?" "Nothing rude ... but Engels described the nature of the Bush-wa family." She paused and said slowly, "He always gave me presents, but ... he was abusive. He asked in return what he shouldn't have asked for. But that's the nature of capitalism ... it's based on abuse." I swallowed again and said, "If you don't mind my asking, what kind of abuse?" But she abruptly responded, "That's all I'll say," and fiercely strode off. Was this young woman alone in her misery? Tristine Adie of New York, who has a 9-month-old child, spoke that afternoon about "The Family Under Capitalism." She began sarcastically, "We hear in the media that in the family ... a loving man and woman come together and have a bond of deep profound love [audience laughter] that they can then offer to the children." Ms. Adie, citing Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, said that Bush-wa leaders did not live up to their own marital vows, and proclaimed "the reality: The family for many people is a living nightmare." Others also complained: Jesse, with huge arms, said, "Look at Cosmo headlines: 'How to get a man,' 'How to keep a man,' 'How to keep him from cheating.' I've grown out of caring, fortunately." Discussion quickly turned personal. Cynthia, a new mom, complained that she had not been sleeping much lately, because "a 3-month-old is keeping me awake ... all child care should be socialized.... Capitalists should pay for the next generation of workers." Ms. Adie said that when her child was born she "was really pissed off. Do I choose to go to work so I pay for child care, or do I stay home and it's really isolating? If I'm going to stay home and take care of my child, I should get a lot of money to do it." Audience members applauded and Ms. Adie drove home her point: "We need to turn anger into organized expression: Free child care, free health care, maternity leave, paternity leave. Anger is important." Many of the young socialists I met were angry, in various ways, and easy targets for ridicule-but they also are, as I was, sheep without a shepherd. I felt a bit like Bruce Willis in the movie The Kid, where he meets his younger self, a fat, unattractive child. Many of the Marxist students I met in Chicago were fat-headed, but the consolation is that a time may come when God will break through their defenses as He did mine. "Workers of the world unite: You have nothing to lose but your chains"? No-we all have much more to lose, and much more to gain.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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