Me and Politics
Good Bye, Lenin!, X Verleih AG, 2003
by Justin E. H. Smith
Sometime in the summer of 1987 I walked out to our rural-route mailbox and found my membership card for the Young Socialist Alliance, accompanied by a typewritten letter filled with both practical information as well as elevated rhetoric about the youth being the future. I had heard that talk before at Catholic Youth Organization meetings, and was annoyed that I was made to join the mere youth auxiliary of the Socialist Workers’ Party. But I was 15 and those were the rules, and I was happy enough to now be officially linked to the largest association of Trotskyists in the United States, whose publishing wing, Pathfinder Press, had already taught me so much about the larger world beyond the Sacramento Valley.
By the following year I had obtained another official document with my name on it, from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which enabled me to drive to the national convention of the SWP at Oberlin College in Cleveland. It enabled me, while my mother, for some mysterious reason, permitted me. In what would have been my junior year I had stopped attending high school for some months, out of sheer stubbornness, and didn’t seem to have any other concrete plans, so driving off to do something at a university might have been hoped to hold open the possibility of what was known, even then, as a ‘positive influence’. A ‘positive influence on the youth’.
So I made it through the high desert of Nevada, through the salt flats of Utah, through the locust plagues of Nebraska, through Illinois, Indiana, and, finally, the state in which I would much later reside for two years and where I am still registered to vote: bleak pseudopalindromic Ohio, microcosm of all that is worst of ‘these United States’, the state Whitman had the most trouble rhapsodising about. But it was all new and fresh to me in 1988 and I was happy to go to some artsy café in the little town next to the campus and meet some dude named Harold who wore the best thrift-shop sweaters and knew more trivia about The Residents and Negativland than I did. This was the larger world too.
I stayed in some dorm with a ‘Third World’ theme. It was early summer, as I recall, and the students were not around, so all I had were the traces of them. This was my first real visit to a university campus. I thought it was all kinds of cool, with its rousing slogans and amateurish wall paintings of Marcus Garvey and Emma Goldman. But I also thought the whole setting was… well, something I could not yet put into words, but that I now recognise, in distant retrospect, whenever I am around people whose social identity is rooted in their sincere political commitments: it was condescending, straight-faced, literal-minded; boring.
I did not need these slogans, I did not need to be told what to think, as if without these simple visual aids I would not have been thinking at all. I needed weird, cryptic, inscrutable expressions of underground culture, where the political valence requires interpretive work. I wanted to go back and find Harold and listen to The Residents together. The SWP congress had not even begun, but by the end of the first night at Oberlin some kind of dim consciousness was sinking in, of the tension between the things I value most, the things that arise from the belief –often stubborn, often insane or monstrous– of individuals in their own unique expressive power, on the one hand; and, on the other, solidarity.
This latter comes much more easily to many people I know than it does to me. I hate the call-and-response ritual of political demonstrations. I am terrified of, even phobic about, rallies, no matter what principle or objective quickens them. After my YSA affiliation lapsed in 1989, I would never again be a member of any political organisation or party (though I was a Teamster when I worked briefly as a parking-lot attendant in California in 1990, and I am currently a member, by default, of Forces Ouvrières, a communist-run labour union representing my interests, I’m told, as a French civil servant).
There was one nerdy guy named Gene at the meeting the next day, and I took to him. He wore some foolish Mao-like costume, and knew so much more than I did. He knew for example what percentage of the population of Albania is Muslim, and that in the Soviet Far East there is a city called Birobidzhan that is the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Socialist Republic founded by Stalin as an alternative to Israel. These were the sort of things people in the high school I had dropped out of did not know, and they were the sort of things I wanted more of. These facts were charged with a sort of magic somewhat like Residents lyrics: it’s a big strange world, and I love it and want to devour it.
Inside the auditorium where the conference sessions took place, I felt, again, much as I had felt in high school: there were authority figures speaking in front of me, while meanwhile I was thinking about other things. I remember a sheep farmer from New Zealand who was warmly applauded when he declared that he would have liked to have lived a simple life out on the rolling green hills with his muttons, but the evil deeds of those in power had forced him into a life of political engagement. I recall a call-and-response exercise where someone at the podium bellowed ‘A! N! C!’ and we in the crowd shouted back ‘SWAPO!’ I liked SWAPO because Namibia was more obscure than South Africa. I bet Gene knows some facts about Namibia, I thought. I’m gonna hit him up for them later.
Then the young people from the YSA were compelled to leave the auditorium as the central committee or whatever they called it voted on some resolutions, and I was indignant at my removal, and wandered back to the Third World dorm. I don’t remember much else that happened, though I know I ended up avoiding sessions just as I had already grown expert at playing hooky from school.
I would spend a good portion of the early 1990s in the Soviet Union, and, later, Russia, with no concrete political commitments, but eager to learn. By now I was just as happy to be reading Vladimir Solov’ev on Богочеловечество [‘Godmanhood’] as to read Lenin on the infantile disorder of left-wing communism.
I didn’t learn any particular ‘harsh truths’ about communism by living through the last days of its official reign in Leningrad, nor did I have any awakenings of the sort depicted by Nikita Mikhalkov in Утомлённые солнцем, when one of Lenin’s great military heroes ends up getting beaten down by secret-police thugs in the back of a black Maria. Things are complicated; the reasons for the failure to really achieve ‘actually existing socialism’ after the Bolshevik revolution are complicated.
I do however have a sharp sense –one that I trace more to 1988 in Ohio than to 1991 in Russia, and that my friends on the Anglophone bourgeois academic left do not seem to share– that if there is ever in the future a revolution of the sort we claim to want, this revolution is likely to be followed by a reign of terror, and I am not at all certain that we will find ourselves on the comfortable side of the revolutionary justice tribunals. I do not think of myself as a milquetoast centrist, yet I am sincerely afraid of revolutionary zeal, and I experience this fear in a milieu where it is supremely uncool to acknowledge that worry about show trials and purges and so on might be anything more than a defence of the status quo. So, I don’t know where my so-called friends will end up, but I am nearly certain that I will be deemed unreformable and sent out to work the fields in perpetuity, and I will not be surprised to see some familiar faces among the members of the tribunal that makes this judgment.
It is not any particular thing I believe that would get me into trouble, but rather the comportment to belief itself: I like my truths ambiguous, I like my slogans absurdist, and I like the kind of art that is open to infinite interpretation. If socialist-realist art, condescending slogans, and suppression of irony turn out to be necessary for the attainment of political justice and equality, then so much the worse for justice and equality. It’s just not worth it.
Those on the bourgeois academic left often say that it is mere scare-mongering to talk about Stalinism when capitalist exploitation continues totally unchecked to victimise the vast majority of people in the world. But the truly terrifying thing is to learn that the Stalinist mentality can set in even in the absence of a successful revolution, that subcultures of Stalinism can thrive even within a larger system of capitalist exploitation. All the better, in fact, for the capitalist exploiters!
No one of course expects anymore that art should show bounteous crop yields or electrical lines, but many do still think that the ‘message’ of a work of art counts in the evaluation of it as a work of art. And so they prefer this hip-hop artist to that one because he spoke of America as ‘AmeriKKKa’ or whatever, and in general they try to make sense out of sheer human creativity, the joy of rhyming, the genius of syncopation and metaphor, as if it were all just more sloganeering.
And they, again, invoke the ‘youth’, and the importance of positive messages for the future of this constructed category of people. Of course the similarity of these invocations to what we hear at CYO, or from the caricatured conservative church lady who is constantly fretting, ‘What about the children?!’ is not coincidental. Authoritarians care about what kind of message ‘the youth’ are receiving, and are overjoyed to welcome ‘the youth’ into social bodies, like churches or parties, where they are sure to receive the right message. Anti-authoritarians give ‘the youth’ messages they have to strain to understand, and ‘the youth’ take delight in this straining, and in this way they realise their true freedom.
But, still, the question might remain, what, politically, is to be done? I have mentioned that I am registered to vote in Ohio, and I will vote, I guess (in Hamilton County no less, the microcosm of the microcosm). I have yet to mention in public any of the major candidates in the 2016 US presidential elections, and I am doing my best not to start now. It has seemed to me in fact that quietism may have an infinitesimally better effect than repetitive sharing of one’s opinions about the various candidates, particularly when these opinions are expressed on social media, and farmed out to entertainers like John Oliver who are perpetually said to be ‘destroying’ public figures who none the less always return the following day evidently unscathed.
To cultivate a life based on the presumption that the idiocy and barbarism of certain public figures are an unworthy thing to organise one’s own thoughts around: is that not too a sort of activism? What would be happening at this moment in the electoral cycle if this quietist approach had been generalised? Practiced by individual citizens, its impact as I’ve said is infinitesimal (but sharing some dumb John Oliver clip about ‘Drumpf’ –what is wrong with this German surname anyway?– could also at best have only an infinitesimally positive result, and perhaps an infinitesimally negative one). But if it had been practiced by those with influential positions in the media… then, well, things would be very different indeed at the present moment.
There is a coming world order of idiocy and barbarism, of which the current American instance is only a local symptom (though a globally influential one at that). It is signalled by the recrudescence of classical imperial behaviour and autocratic rule in Russia, Turkey, India, and China (where these never went away), and in the certain rise of petty strong men throughout Europe after the likely collapse of the Union that had been formed to protect the continent against these sorts. None of these regimes will have much tolerance for weirdness, for individualist gestures, as often occur in art, that make no sense, that have no clear message or purpose besides sheer delight in freedom. It is in my view the possibility of experiencing this delight that must be defended above all else.
And yet my contemporaries are busy coming up with dumb slogans of their own, slogans that make all too much sense, and that make no room for the flippant adolescent, who could never qualify as a member of any adult organisation’s idea of ‘youth’, and whose deepest visceral instinct is to roll his eyes when he hears them, and to ‘zone out’: to switch forthwith in his imagination to altogether other places, which may or may not exist anywhere in this world, which may or may not be possible.
Crossposted with jehsmith.com