New York City
Native New Yorker. Red Diaper Baby. Recovering Economist. Avid Knitter.
Look. You have to understand something. When I say I’m a red diaper baby, I mean something really specific and I’m definitely not talking about one of the sects that cannibalize the Left in America. I still default to the idea that, aside from some old folks like Grandpa Karl, socialism is basically a people of color thing. It’s Vietnamese rice farmers kicking out the greatest military on earth, it’s liberation theology and the pedagogy of the oppressed, it’s the home I have in Indian communism and the spine that kept the Left going in the States for decades. Have you ever read ‘Hammer & Hoe’? Now that’s a story.
Here’s a story I like to tell about how I was raised. Some of my most vivid memories as a child are late night political conversations and protest meetings. My parents are pretty cool people. One of the main struggles they were engaged with in the 1980s was to free Namibia after South Africa invaded and to then push on to end apartheid. My mom came at it from ‘above’ in the sense that she worked for the United Nations. My Dad came at it from ‘below’ with long-term activist relationships, particularly the South African Communists who played such a key role supporting the trade union movement as well as the ANC during its years in the wilderness. It was a movement that was also a community: there were the songs of Soweto and the novels of Nadine Gordimer and so much passion. That wave of political activity crashed to shore under South Africa’s second President, Thabo Mbeki, because it achieved political liberation without changing the underlying economic realities of capitalism.
And that’s the thing that socialists have to offer the many visionary struggles already in motion in our neighborhoods and around the world. We can name the problem that twists and denatures every victory: capitalism. We can win marriage equality; but as long as our enemies can buy their way into political domination, that victory will always be contingent and tenuous. Liberal reforms will always be contingent and give an entirely false sense of having conquered a social ill. We need more. We can do more.
Sidebar: you know what else is really not helpful? Hero narratives. You know what I’m talking about: heroes make for good stories and clear messages, but they’re not exemplary of how life--nor liberation--works. We organize one another and re-organize one another to keep the struggle in motion. Every victory lifts the floor from which the next struggle launches itself.
Capitalism as an engine of innovation and technological change has exhausted itself. Catastrophic climate change is the ultimate indicator of this: the urge to monetize, commodify and extract every scrap of profit from every moment of the day and every inch of our planet is sending us hurtling towards the point of no return.
What comes next? Well…I have the rare pleasure of belonging to a relatively un-embarassing socialist lineage, both as a lifelong fellow traveler and as a communist student organizer for two years at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Let me offer up some potted history: the Left Front in India is the coalition of Communist parties that seeks to hold the line on the socialism that was once the norm in India and push it forward wherever possible, especially as neo-liberalism has gotten its hooks into the economy through the failures of social democratic parties and the onslaughts of the right wing. Not surprisingly, the rightward turn in economic policy has been accompanied by the rise of a deeply racist right wing party- the BJP- which currently holds power at the federal level. In addition to re-writing textbooks and waging war on the cultural front, this same party has finally done what no one else could manage: opening India up to the almost unfettered capital flows that spread our housing bust around the world in 2008. Does this story sound familiar at all? It should.
Here are some further experiences that I hold dear: the Left Front- and its main party the Communist Party of India (Marxist)- is a mass party with over a million members at last count. It contests elections at every level of government. We had the first elected Communist government in Kerala in 1956. We had the longest running elected Communist government in the world in West Bengal. Walking the line between a visionary anti-capitalism and the practicalities of electability has been the Left Front’s fundamental balancing act. We in DSA can learn much from this situation.
I could go on at some length about the CPM’s political education strategy, how they break down class privilege with a thorough and at times brutal cadre development process, their abhorrence of formalized tendencies and how they fight in every sector of society from industrial labor to agricultural workers to feminist campaigns to the cultural front of movies, plays and music.
Let’s figure this out!