The Broken Hammer and Rusted Sickle: American Communism in the 21st Century
To most, the word “Communism” signifies something as oppressive as it is now obsolete. To this day, Vladimir Lenin, the father of Soviet Communism, provokes a lot of debate in Russia–the debate concerns whether or not his embalmed, publicly displayed body is worth the expense of being kept fresh, or if it should simply be buried like any other rotten vegetable (“What to do with an Old Comrade”). With the decline of the Soviet Union and Russian repudiation of both Marx and Lenin, it seems at a glance, that Marxism hasn’t reinvented itself in any significant way. Ostensibly the ideology’s adherents have resigned themselves to the rubbish heap; however even “garbage” has its story. If Communism as an ideology initially brings to mind things that have been trashed, abandoned, or forgotten, then perhaps another image is more suitable: one of a thoroughly defeated insurgency exiled to the wastelands–survival on the margins, but survival nonetheless.
In the United States, where free-enterprise is considered a pillar of our nationhood, Communism seems like a thoroughly defeated, spat upon, and busted-up notion, but to this day a myriad of small, but avowedly Marxist groups exist. They may or may not be a force to be reckoned with, but they continue their fights in small ways. What is it like on the frontlines of “Red America?” My story and the stories of my former “comrades” are only a few among… well, not so many. Nonetheless, these stories offer a glimpse into American Marxism well after the decline of the Soviet Union.
My involvement with radical politics came about during the era of ultra- conservative Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Prior to Congressman Gingrich’s Republican Revolution, I hadn’t developed too many strong feelings about politics, but, once he and his freshman congressmen starting suggesting massive cuts in social spending along with unapologetic social conservativism, something about their smugness really irked me. This was nothing but the wolf’s rapacious corporate greed wrapped up in sheep’s clothing. I remember thinking they didn’t want to help anyone out financially, but they were more than happy to tell folks how to run their life. I wasn’t a bleeding heart; at heart, I was an alienated and misanthropic adolescent. However, when I first came across a Marxist newspaper, specifically Socialist Worker, I remember being fascinated. This outlandish paper demanded higher wages, more powerful unions, and complete social benefits for all citizens. Socialist Worker seemed opposed to anything put forth by anyone in the American political establishment. Socialist Worker (which is put out by the International Socialist Organization, one of many Trotskyist outfits) declared in every issue, “We actively support the struggle of workers and all oppressed people for economic, political and social reforms, both as a means to improve their conditions and to advance their confidence and fighting strength. But reforms within the capitalist system cannot put an end to oppression and exploitation. Capitalism must be replaced. It was almost as if I had uncovered a subterranean layer of forbidden thought. My imagination was captivated with the image of a mass movement ushering in the next era of history. As an adolescent, I did not see too many virtues in tempering my political enthusiasm.
In truth, I would never be wholly familiar with the dogma itself; while I read a few basic texts by famous Communist ideologues, I never read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao to the point that I reached any expertise. What I did read seemed dramatic and provocative, whether it was Karl Marx’s imploring, “Workers of the world, unite!” or Mao’s observation that “power” (or freedom depending on who’s doing the quoting) rolls out of the barrel of a gun.” Whether or not my appreciation of these texts was a superficial one, I would soon discover that there were literally dozens of revolutionary Leftist outfits, including a few in my hometown of East Lansing and neighboring Lansing.
My journey into Lansing’s Far Left often required me to tell my father, who was at one time an employee of the Chamber of Commerce and impatient in general, that I was going out to see some friends. In truth I was headed out to the south side of Lansing, home of the New Society Book Store. It was a small and unremarkable little shop, but the who’s who of Lansing’s revolutionary Left were drawn to the place. In the Lansing area, it seemed that the miniscule revolutionary Left was split between anti-authoritarian, anti-state Anarchists, and Communists. For reasons that now seem incredibly arbitrary and hard to put together, I went from exploration to identification. Specifically, I identified myself as a Communist.
To an observer, my own rapidly converted convictions may have seemed questionable at best, but those of my “comrades,” who I will assign the pseudonyms of “Ryan Morris” and “Clark Havener” were not. In the following, the well read and earnest Morris describes, in an e-mail, his change to a Marxist way of thinking: “I’d been thinking politically angry thoughts for a couple of years, since the first Gulf War started and something clicked in my tiny, almost-adolescent mind to the effect that dropping cluster bombs on cities and killing thousands of civilians was probably a bad thing. I think I also had a vague idea that restoring the Kuwaiti monarchy to its rightful throne might not be the kind of cause worth killing and dying for.” His views were solidified after reading The Communist Manifesto.
Clark Havener, who also answered questions via e-mail, first met Communist revolutionaries who came to his University of Michigan dorm room looking to discuss socialism with him. “I wasn’t all that impressed,” he says, “but it got me thinking about various economic systems, something I was always fascinated with. They [the Marxists] introduced me to the works of Noam Chomsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx. It was the Reagan era, and there were a lot of horrible things that the U.S. was doing overseas at that time. . . I became more aware of the depredations of the US military and their proxies. . . like the Contras.” Eventually, Havner and Morris affiliated with different Marxist groups.
I never affiliated with the Communist Party USA, which seemed to me and those around me, to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for corrupt regimes, a senile dinosaur of an organization that lamented the good old days of the Soviet Union, having attempted to justify the Stalinist nightmare’s every action. While the CPUSA is probably the best run and largest Marxist organization in the country, to us it seemed thoroughly geriatric. Just how decrepit did it seem to us? A Communist from another organization trying to recruit me once suggested “Whenever you read a People’s Weekly World [the CPUSA newspaper] obituary, and it’s local, hit the used bookstores–those old C.P. members have all the best old books.”
The CPUSA is like every other revolutionary Leftist group, very much a fringe group. As noted earlier, I never affiliated with the CPUSA, nor did anyone in my immediate circle of radicals, including Ryan and Clark. I went through a number of affiliations, including the Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, the local Marxist Study and Action Group, and the Stalinist/Maoist front group RAIL, or Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist League (there is a constant change in membership on the far-left as well as constant splits and reformations, but I doubtlessly took it to a new level). None of these organizations viewed whatever the Soviet Union was as a truly Communist society, much less a “worker’s paradise.” That’s something worth keeping in mind before you “point out” to a self-professed Marxist that the Soviet Union was a failure.
As far as the internal lives of Marxist organizations go, Morris and I never relocated to a bigger city to be active with a well-disciplined group; however, for a while Havner was involved in militant Trotskyist organization known as the Spartacist League. Havener describes much of his work as focused on distributing and selling the Spartacist League’s newspaper, Workers Vanguard. “A typical daily schedule for a longtime member of a Trotskyist or Communist group might be to sell the paper for an hour at a subway station in Chicago… or to stock the paper at an independent bookstore in a college area”(“Questions about Communism”). In addition to that, the Spartacist League attempted to make its presence felt at labor strikes and different protests. Havener usually attended a meeting once a week.
Havener, like Morris and myself, is older and perhaps a bit less zealous these days. Looking back on the Spartacist League’s marginalized efforts and rhetorical intensity now rarely fails to amuse. Like a lot of other Communists, we maintained an unhealthy and at times contemptuous fascination with other small Marxist groups. There was one particularly memorable bit of news that still amuses us to this day. I don’t think we’ll ever forget reading a Spartacist publication that announced a purge of certain members from their ranks, the headline reading, “Norden’s Group: Shamefaced Defectors from Trotskyism.” Melodramatic to say the least.
Havener, Morris and myself for reasons likely not worth remembering, formed our own Marxist organization, The Marxist Study and Action Group– an organization with a membership that seemed to fluctuate between 3 to 6 people. MSAG, as we called it, saw its fair share of leftist soap opera. I remember once members of MSAG showing at the meeting of another, less dogmatic umbrella Leftist group. In this particular instance, the venue for the meeting was Taco Bell. The idea was to organize a protest of Michigan’s Governor John Engler and his State of the State address. Like an ill-fated chemical equation involving too many unreliable elements, things got very feisty and outright explosive quickly. A serious, disapproving fellow in MSAG made caustic comments about the battle plans the “less-serious” Anarchists had drawn up. After some trash-talking, pushing, and posturing went down, the surly Marxist took it upon himself to stand up on the Taco Bell table, pull out Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and loudly read an excerpt: “The Revolution is not a dinner party…” The other diners, if that what’s you can call people eating fast food, looked on in utter incredulity.
This drama only perpetuated itself, and after some more theatrics, Havener and I did not associate with Morris for a while, as he was more closely associated with the surlier elements; we did, however, remain politically active and involved in radical causes. Morris and I both attended the Motown 1997 National Labor March in Detroit to support the striking newspaper workers, but the event was likely a bit more memorable for him. “Our little group had a run-in with the ‘Socialist Equality Party,” he recalls. Morris had what he described as a “pretty sharp disagreement” with them over what he described as them taking the “batshit crazy ultra-left line” that existing labor unions were no longer worth working with Jerry White, the leader of the SEP, recognized Ryan and proceeded to antagonize him. After some back- and- forth, Morris and his comrades began to walk away, only to be followed by an irate SEP zealot who, according to Morris, shouted, “Fuck you! You can’t talk that way to Jerry White! Do you know who that is?” A few seconds later, the zealot “very calmly and professionally” knocked Morris’s associate onto the pavement.
According to Ryan, a member of the Spartacist League took a photograph of the incident, but the “Sparts” opted not to publish it in Worker’s Vanguard because Ryan had disputed their account of a separate violent incident between the Spartacist League and the International Socialist Organization in an online message board. Ryan was at the time of that previous incident, a member of the International Socialist Organization, but wasn’t present at that scuffle.
If all this sectarian street fighting sounds like personal demons wearing political masks that is, in part, because fringe dissenters are inherently feisty, but what also must be kept in mind is that many Marxists will not avail themselves of cops or the courts. To them, the facets of the legal system are tools of government oppression. This leaves a few less ways to peacefully resolve conflicts with other revolutionaries. It can certainly put them in conflict with the police. Havner remembers making his own visit to the hotbed of life and intrigue that is Detroit to protest a “G7 meeting where a number of corporate leaders were meeting to figure out how to conduct trade without decent working conditions or environmental rules in third world countries.” He was walking with about three others towards the Fox Theatre, which was hosting the meeting, when some of Detroit’s finest simply told them to turn around Havener says the police started shoving his party without explanation, simply insisting that they leave. “It was absurd; there was no one around for blocks and these officers were having fun pushing us down Detroit city streets. This experience was actually a fairly typical one when dealing with the Detroit Police Department.”
It was perhaps all of these grand declarations, factional spats, and dramatic confrontations that inspired Clark, Ryan and I, at a time when we were again sharing the sandbox, to do a particularly stupid thing. To my way of thinking, the nativist, gun-nut movement known as the Michigan Militia constituted a Fascist threat. Other Fascist groups were confronted with force, whether by overturning police barricades and chasing hapless Klansmen or showing up to skinhead music venues looking for a brawl, so I thought should we confront “the Militia” too. The difference between those more serious efforts and mine were in the numbers. Ryan, Clark, and I (no one else) decided to show up to counter-protest a Militia rally in Lansing, MI, the state capitol. With a ski-mask, false bravado, and full stupidity, I ran into the crowd of Militia-men, carrying with me a Soviet flag, just to be provocative. Ryan had a bullhorn and shouted taunts at the speaker of this hundred-plus rally. I remember a lot of men dressed in camouflage, some of whom were carrying heavy flags of their own, surrounding us. Havener told me later he thought they held on to those heavy flag polls because they wanted the option of clubbing us with them. Suffice to say, if it weren’t for almost being arrested by the State Police officers, we might have ended up hospitalized–as it was, we walked away bruised only inasmuch as our feelings were hurt, and we were made to suffer no more than the label of “cocksuckers.” It is well known that Communists believe religion to be the “opiate of the masses,” so it must have been the spirit of Karl Marx, not God, who, from either Reddest hell or the worker’s paradise in the sky, chose that one time to look out for his fools and children.
Now, after all the dust has settled and proletarian fervor abated, Havener, Morris, and myself all agree that for all of the factional politics and fighting, nothing we ever did was very effectual.
I don’t know if my eventual waning enthusiasm had much to do with disagreements with the tenets of Marxism so much as wondering if being a paper-selling, protest junkie was doing much for my life. The very novel thought occurred to me that life was more than resisting different social institutions and being contrary. Getting involved with more serious Marxist organizations holding out for a revolution unlikely to occur was not an enticing prospect after a while. I never considered myself a “true believer” about anything–what was going to motivate me 15 years down the road to continue a fruitless struggle? Additionally, I didn’t know entirely what it would be like to be involved in a disciplined revolutionary organization. Accusations of sectarianism and cult like dynamics abounded; however, most revolutionary groups are somewhat underground, and elusive when asked about their internal decision making procedures. Havener described his own disillusionment with communist activism in these words, “I was certainly ineffectual and probably slightly dangerous to my friends and fellow students because I was following the advice of an organization that was both–demanding (a bit on the cultish side) and wrong quite often.” Havener is no longer active with any explicitly political organization, his organizational efforts now involve organizing and administering a weekly sci-fi meet up group, though he is now a union steward in a UAW local. Morris is involved with less sectarian political organizations, but spends more time writing fiction than being politically active.
Some ten years later, perspective inevitably develops. There was a time when I was very embarrassed by my past “misdeeds,” but now my behavior seems, in a strange way, classically adolescent. Instead of finding an encouraged, sanctioned way of expressing myself and my developing worldview, I got on a bus and snuck across town to share my alienation with others who seemed as rowdy as they were disaffected. Boys will be boys– though to be fair, not all boys fall asleep reading Das Kapital. As for my beliefs themselves? With the division between rich and poor increasing by epic proportions, and another imperialist war costing lots of people their lives, I’ll turn the question around and ask you, the reader: is vociferously criticizing this insanity that ridiculous? Don’t mistake the message for the messenger, only remember Karl Marx, who once said, “I can assure you, sir, I’m no Marxist.”