“Forward without forgetting”

Posted: 5 May 2017 in Uncategorized
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The original premise of this post was going to be the fact that, finally, we find ourselves beyond the Red Scare. Thus, the space had been created to “move forward without forgetting” the positive role that Communism and Marxist ideas have played in the United States.

And then I read about the case of Jill Bloomberg, the principal of Park Slope Collegiate in New York City, who’s being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations.

The representative told Ms. Bloomberg that she could not tell her the nature of any allegations, nor who had made them, but said that she would need to interview Ms. Bloomberg’s staff.

Then one of her assistant principals, who had met with an investigator, revealed to her exactly what the allegation was, one that seemed a throwback to another era: Communist organizing.

It seems, then, we haven’t moved entirely out of the shadow of the period (from 1930 to 1975) when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated a wide variety of public employees and private citizens, including (in 1947) the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, for their suspected “disloyalty and subversive activities.”*

It is perhaps even more remarkable then that, in 2017—which, lest we forget, marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of volume one of Marx’s Capital and the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution—the New York Times published Vivian Gornick’s piece titled “When Communism Inspired Americans.”

In that essay, Gornick reminisces about growing up in a world of “progressives,” at the center of which “were full-time organizers for the Communist Party, at the periphery left-wing sympathizers, and at various points in between everything from rank-and-file party card holders to respected fellow travelers.”

They were voyagers on that river, these plumbers, pressers and sewing machine operators; and they took with them on their journey not only their own narrow, impoverished experience but also a set of abstractions with transformative powers. When these people sat down to talk, Politics sat down with them, Ideas sat down with them; above all, History sat down with them. They spoke and thought within a context that lifted them out of the nameless, faceless obscurity into which they had been born, and gave them the conviction that they had rights as well as obligations. They were not simply the disinherited of the earth, they were proletarians with a founding myth of their own (the Russian Revolution) and a civilizing worldview (Marxism).

They also knew that Communists and fellow travelers had, during the party’s 40-year existence, played an important role in every progressive movement in the United States.

every rank-and-filer knew that party unionists were crucial to the rise of industrial labor; party lawyers defended blacks in the South; party organizers lived, worked, and sometimes died with miners in Appalachia; farm workers in California; steel workers in Pittsburgh. What made it all real were the organizations the party built: the International Workers Order, the National Negro Congress, the Unemployment Councils.

All of that came to end, of course, with the second Red Scare, the McCarthy witch hunts and the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (Nikita Khrushchev revealed the incalculable horrors of Stalin’s rule). But, now that we are partly overcoming our historical amnesia, we can begin to remember the enormous contributions of the Party and its sympathizers in many different political, cultural, and media projects that promoted peace and economic and social justice in the United States.
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So, where does that leave Bini Adamczak’s new book, Communism for Kids? On one hand, it was issued not by some small left-wing publishing house, but by MIT Press.

Once upon a time, people yearned to be free of the misery of capitalism. How could their dreams come true? This little book proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism. Offering relief for many who have been numbed by Marxist exegesis and given headaches by the earnest pompousness of socialist politics, it presents political theory in the simple terms of a children’s story, accompanied by illustrations of lovable little revolutionaries experiencing their political awakening.

And yet, as Zachary Volkert reports, the book is “getting a heavy push back from conservative media.”

Does that mean we’re back to where we started? In many senses, yes. Just as the attack on the labor unions in the 1920s and the ravages of the first Great Depression created fertile ground for the Communist Party and other left-wing movements in the United States, similar events in recent decades have left us with many people who yearn “to be free of the misery of capitalism.” And both periods have witnessed right-wing reactions against those progressive movements and ideas.

Now, of course, we live in an age marked by a right-wing president and the most popular politician who happens to be on the Left—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I still believe only the latter represents the way forward.

 

*The title of this post is a line from the “Solidarity Song” (written for Brecht’s play “The Mother”), which subsequently became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe.

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