This edition of Dear Commie is actually a back-and-forth between comrades about use of the word “commie.” Warmest thanks to Chuck of Rock River DSA for his willingness to share his thoughts with Red Madison.
I was pleased with the new look of the Madison newsletter, congrats! But when I saw the column, “Dear commie,” I both laughed and cringed. I believe using ‘commie’ is a mistake.
There are two reasons for this, the first being related to age. I’m 65 and a founding member, having been in the New American Movement (NAM), one of two groups that merged to create DSA. While I’m pleased that younger folks no longer feel the stigma of ‘commie,’ something we predicted with the fall of the Soviet Union, many of my cohort are still nervous about ‘socialism,’ let alone ‘communism.’ This is true even in our fledgling OC.
The second has to do with the broader socialist movement. There is very good reason for identifying ourselves as ‘democratic’ socialists. We promote the expansion of democracy, both in our organization and the wider society. Communism is still associated with Stalinism, a tendency I hope all of us agree is harmful to that mission. There was a time when many of us were optimistic about China, but that time has long past. Many still associate ‘communism’ with Leninism and Trotskyism. Though both are authors are worth reading, such organizations share with Stalinism a horrible, top-down ‘democratic-centralist’ model of organizing. The genius of DSA is its emphasis on local autonomy. In our communities. we seek ‘organic’ relationships broader social movements, we do not tell them we have ‘the correct line.’
I’m not saying we should be ‘anti-communist,’ just that we should be careful how we use the term. While I do think we should promote Marx, like him I am not a ‘Marxist.’ We should promote and translate his ideas, applying them to the American experience (one of the major goals of NAM), carefully explaining to those who are ready what he meant by ‘communism.’ At the same time, we should recognize the history of other socialist forms of organizing here in the US, particularly in Wisconsin.
The major point I am trying to make, following Gramsci, is that we are engaged in a culture war. We must win the hearts and minds of many others, old and young, far and center-left, social democrat, liberal or otherwise. To do our best at this, we should not use the ‘hammer and sickle,’ rather we should be proud of the ‘fist and rose.’
Co-Coordinator of the Rock River DSA (Rock, Jefferson and Walworth Counties of WI)
As you know, I disagree that we should avoid associating ourselves with communism.
For one thing, we can’t avoid it. Forces on the right call everything to their left “communism.” Even President Barack Obama couldn’t escape the label, and he’s not even a progressive. Our foes will call us socialists and communists whether we do or not. I don’t think worrying about it is a productive use of our time. I also think that rejecting these labels with a lot of arguments about how we’re not like this country or that microsect misses the larger point we should be making right now: we are opposed to capitalism, and capitalism has done more harm and cost more lives than any other type of society in human history. Better to keep our sights on the enemy of working people around the world – capitalism – than to police ourselves for traces of the red menace.
As for actively adopting the label as we have done for the purpose of our Dear Commie column – well, it was a little bit tongue and cheek. To answer questions about socialism in a way that’s readable, we’re making allusion to “Dear Abby” columns in their Q&A advice format, and “Commie” slides in nicely. Saying “Commie” also acknowledges what people will already say about us and takes the power away from the label by having some fun with it ourselves.
And, speaking for myself, just one of the Dear Commie writers, I also mean it sincerely: we are not wishy washy in our commitment to overcoming capitalism, and staking out that ground where sometimes “socialism” is a word that can mean everything and nothing is important.
You argue that age is a defining factor in our disagreement and I couldn’t agree more. Younger people no longer feel the sting of association with the Soviet Union. We are less familiar with and therefore less afraid of red baiting. More than that, the conditions of our lives mean that many young people are radicalizing fast and coming to revolutionary conclusions.
I’m 31 years old. The United States has been at war for most of my life. Capitalism has dimmed the prospects for my entire generation. We will never attain the wealth and security of our parents’ generations (which itself was always insufficient). Due to pollution and contamination and corrupt food systems, we will have worse health outcomes than our parents, which spells ruination and debt in the for-profit healthcare system. That’s only if we survive to middle and old age – we also know that capitalism will destroy the planet within our lifetimes if we do not stop it. The solution offered to us by the establishment this year is Joe Biden, an accused rapist who has no intention of enacting the policies that could save our lives, like a Green New Deal or Medicare for all, and who could not be bothered to speak for the entire first week of the current COVID-19 crisis.
To be honest, I’ve never felt more enthusiastic about communism in my entire life. I believe in organizing to upset the whole capitalist apple cart. I want a complete transfer of power and control from the ruling class to the only class with the ability to enact a democratic society – the working class.
I’m not ashamed or nervous about being associated with communism of the past, either. Even in the United States, there’s a lot in the tradition of communists and socialists to be proud of and to embrace. Communists have had a profound influence on social movements of American history, including the labor movement and the civil rights movement. I don’t want to hold myself apart from that history, and I don’t want future generations to lose sight of it either. We should learn from it and carry the tradition forward – even in DSA.
Dayna Long, Madison Area DSA