By Mimi Soltysik
When I was approached to put something together that was focused on the future of the Left for The Socialist, it seemed highly appropriate to reach out to some of the younger Party members who, I felt, would be playing a key role in what the future might look like. I tend to believe that I’ll learn a bit more from what I’m about to hear as opposed to what I’m about to say.
I posed a handful of questions to Marisa from Boise, Idaho; Kay T. from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Hana from L.A., California; and Travis from Ligonier, Pennsylvania — five intensely bright, compassionate and insightful young people who joined the SPUSA to find out how they felt about gender roles, a vision for the future and social media. Perhaps my greatest joy since joining the SPUSA has been the incredible opportunity it has given me to learn about community. I feel incredibly fortunate to belong to a community with folks like the five who agreed to this interview. Enjoy!
MS: Why socialism?
Marisa: I believe in the abolition of private (not personal) property, in the power of unions, and in absolute freedom for all people. My heart has and always will lie with anarchism, but, of course, socialism, in its purest form, is inherently anarchical, and the two are inextricably linked.
Kay T: Growing up, I was no stranger to the ideas associated with socialism. Most of my father’s family had been involved in social movements in Latin America. And all of them were part of feminist and socialist movements in Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, and Brazil. So, I never had an aversion to socialism— it was just normal concept — a set of ideas. When I lived in New York I lived in the south Bronx and Washington Heights. In the 90s, these were very poor working-class neighborhoods. But just to be clear, I say “poor working class” because I don’t associate poverty with being working class. Those neighborhoods are still predominantly Latino, and are struggling with poverty. But gentrification has begun. The same situation was in North Philadelphia. I moved to the Fairhill-Norris Square section of city in the late 90s. This section of the city is 90% Latino with a 60% poverty rate. I loved living in these three places. They hold a very deep and powerful place in my heart. But growing up, I remember seeing where white middle-class and rich people lived. I remembered playgrounds and baseball fields that were always cropped and free of glass, and other things. And I remember people having all of their teeth, nice clothes, shoes, and private swimming pools. In the rich neighborhoods, people talked and laughed with the police. In my neighborhood we didn’t have supermarkets nearby. And when we would go to a market after taking two buses, those markets had poor quality food that would make you sick.
And the pipes in the houses where I lived were bad. So, the water wasn’t drinkable. These were all the observations that I made when I was young. I knew how the white middle-class and the rich lived, because my dad and mom cleaned their homes, watched their children, fixed their four-car garages, and organized their offices. As I got older, I wanted an explanation why these disparities existed in every city throughout the world. My dad gave me his copy of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. They served as the basis of my understanding for the exploitation of working-class peoples. I still didn’t consider myself a socialist until after I graduated from undergrad. I studied sociology with a minor in economics and bio-behavioral health. And I was very interested in the intersection of human health, social structure, and economic policies.
I found that all over the world that “class matters.” I found that class was not just one’s circumstances. Class position means power and that power shapes the way society works from the macro-level all the way down to the psychological, physical, environmental, and inter-personal health of individuals. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I was a very big Barack Obama supporter. Not only was he the first brown presidential candidate that could win, he talked about change from the bottom up. For me, this had to be something other than capitalism, since that’s what we had. And the right called him a Socialist. And I knew that the right was absolutely pro-capitalist. So, with my little knowledge of the political dynamics in this country, I felt that Obama could have been socialistic. During that time, I also began an intensive research process to learn about socialism and the U.S. labor movement. And that’s when I put together my overall socialist worldview. By 2009 I had completely become a Socialist — or a Marxist to be precise. I guess you can say I came to Marxism through social science and experience, and not because I like the ideas. I just found it to be the best way of understanding power and the potential for creating a better world. In a sense, the Obama campaign helped me become more aware of my socialist views. And today, he’s convinced me of the imperative to organize; the sake of the world depends on it. In fact, I believe humanity can’t take much more.
Hana: I think that necessities, such as education and healthcare, shouldn’t be parceled out to those who can pay a higher price, or to those who are able to outsource vital functions, such as going to other countries for surgery or sending children to exclusive private schools.
Travis: Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract that “Man was born free, yet everywhere is in chains.” That really resonated with me. I always sought the political ideology I felt would enable people with the greatest freedom. I considered myself a libertarian for years because that movement talks a good game about freeing people from government. However, when I got a little older and really thought about the world around me, it struck me that government had merely become a tool used by large, powerful private interests to protect themselves from the “competition” that capitalists trumpet and to trample on the rights of others. I think that democratizing the workplace and empowering workers with greater wages, education, and standards of health care will do more to liberate the common man and woman than anything else.
MS: Why did you decide to join a socialist organization? What sort of support do you have from friends and family with regards to your choice?
Marisa: I decided to join a socialist organization for two reasons: 1) Our power is greater when we are united, and 2) Our knowledge and intelligence grows when we have the opportunity to discuss our beliefs. My family has politely disconnected from my political beliefs, but my friends are radical (as I am), and support me completely.
Kay T: I joined the Socialist Party USA after meeting Billy Wharton in 2009. I had been reading his tweets and blog posts and he helped me to see that President Obama and the Democratic Party were nothing more than segment of the capitalist class that believed in exploiting in less ugly ways. Mr. Wharton’s pieces were always written in a way that could level with me about what was going on in the mainstream, and then show how it was really working against the working class. This was particularly true of the health care reform legislation. I guess it was his nuanced approach. I would have never joined a socialist organization if not for him. My family and friends are all Leftists. So, they support me being in the Socialist Party. Most of them wonder why it took me so long. They know I generally scrutinize everything for a long time before I actually join in … I’m a skeptic. The ultimate reason I joined the Socialist Party is because I believe it is important for socialists to organize among themselves in order to organize among the broader public. Organization is the basis for any type of movement. Without organization there is no foundation. And with no foundation there can be no power. Power is, after all, the relative organizational strength and capacity of one group versus another. We have to out-organize the oppressor.
Hana: I think after I stopped being so afraid to be open about my beliefs, I joined the Socialist Party USA. There is no point in just believing in something if you’re not willing to agitate politically. Since joining, everyone I know has asked me questions, and shown an interest in why I’ve joined.
Travis: I joined the SPUSA because I met a couple of people who were part of it and I really enjoyed talking to them. They were the kind of people that represented the leftist change I wanted to see in society, instead of the white, bourgeois college dorm room liberalism that permeates so many other Left groups. That lead me to look through the party platform, and finding myself in agreement with the majority of it, I joined the party. As for family and friends, I have limited support from them, being that many are distressingly conservative, but my mother and a few others were incredibly supportive of my decisions and ideologies.
MS: Given the advent of social networking and the role its played in recent peoples’ movements worldwide, how do you think it can be used to advance a socialist movement in the U.S.?
Marisa: Again, we are stronger when we are united, and social networking does that better than almost anything else. But in many ways it is also dangerously superficial. Oftentimes, it gives comrades a false sense of involvement when, in reality, they are forgetting what they can do to fight.
Kay T: As I mentioned previously, I learned about the Socialist Party through online social media. So, I think the web can be a potent medium for sharing critical knowledge for building a new society. But there is a caveat: It cannot replace face-to-face organizing. Real solidarity requires us to be with each other corporeally. This physical element is a vital part of human communication. It’s what allows us to connect on a deeper level, because solidarity is more than statements of agreement. It means being willing to share the same physical-material space and time. For online social networking to be optimal, I think we have to really know how to reach different groups of people. And that’s beyond my scope of knowledge. I do want to make a note that there is a digital divide. Many working-class people do not use the Internet. And if they do, they use it differently from middle-class people. Technology itself is mostly about potential. But technology use is based on experiences and cultural history. So, it may be used in a different ways for different things. Look at how people use Twitter and Facebook. Some use it for global news. Others use it to see sports updates and celebrity updates. Others use it just to vent and share their personal experiences. For social networking to be useful, it has to consider all of this.
Hana: People can meet and interact with others who are more socially aware of what’s actually going on, which can lead to support for a particular movement. In countries that have recently experienced a people’s movement, such as Brazil, social networking allows more unity between people and organization[s]. I think in the United States, it could lead to increased support for the Socialist Party USA.
Travis: Good question. I would say that the best bet we have for the use of social networking is for your average, everyday Socialist to get educated about socialist ideas and solutions, find good counter-arguments against capitalism, and to express those ideas while welcoming good-natured debate. You may never convince the person on the other end of the Internet, but if you make a good case and avoid the name-calling pitfalls of online arguments, you have a pretty good chance of convincing the people involved. It helps to put a human face to an ideology that has been unfairly tarnished by the “Red Scare” of years past. Documenting abuses of capitalist power and the inequality and inhumanity [that] our current system creates also provides a powerful argument for socialist change.
MS: Are you satisfied or comfortable with the role that women have been playing in Leftist activism?
Marisa: In the SPUSA, yes, I am satisfied with the role women play. But in Leftist groups in general? No. There has, unfortunately, been a trend in recent years of men who hold the class struggle above all other struggles without pausing to realize that ALL struggles are linked and the abolition of one kind of oppression is not possible without the abolition of all kinds of oppression. They marginalize women, transgender people, queer people, and people of color while defending their actions with outdated political theory. Of course, theory has its place, but theorists themselves were not free of their own prejudices.
Kay T: This is an interesting question. I don’t think [the] question is a question of comfort with the role women and ethnic minorities play in Left activism. For me the question is how open is the Left to ethnic working-class minorities and women. The U.S. Left has traditionally been predominantly white and male. And there have been parallel and at time intersections between ethnic minorities and women with the dominant Left. We can look to the radical elements of the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano, Puerto Rican Independence Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, and Black Radicalism during the Harlem Renaissance. But the white Left or dominant Left never fully embraced those struggles as its own. Ethnic minorities and women participated in the dominant Left, but their causes were generally marginalized. To be honest, I don’t think this has changed much.
Today, perhaps in the past as well, the Left is not only predominantly white and male, it is also heavily middle class, and its perspective on what needs to be done, how to organize, and what issues are most important reflects a white middle-class perspective. Sexism within the Left is entrenched. People support women’s rights in the legal-liberal sense, but in the more radical/revolutionary sense they continue to support sexism and patriarchy in everyday practices, organizational practices, and the discourses they use as well as the inattention to the various ways women are objectified and exploited. This is even more the case with ethnic minorities, which includes women of color. Most of the time when Leftists do engage “issues” of gender equality they do not consider the particular forms of oppression that affect women of color. For example, we are fierce advocates of the right to have an abortion. But little is said about the right of the poor and Brown to procreate. Many Leftists will talk about why the poor and the Brown should not procreate because they do not have the financial means to support a child. We call this being irresponsible. We ought to advocate the right for people to have healthy children just as much as we defend the right to not have children.
Hana: Very much so. There is both an autonomy and unity that women in the Left have, despite the overwhelming patriarchal influence on women in leftist activism.
Travis: Yes and no. I think that that women and “minorities” [who] are active within the Leftist movement have been incredibly impassioned and inspired and have done great work for the cause, but I find it distressing that more women and minorities aren’t active within the movement. I think it has to do with a couple of different factors. One is that, sadly, activism is a luxury for many people. It’s hard to feel like “hitting the streets” or engaging others in debate if you are working three jobs just so you can be broke at the end of the month, which is a position that far too many young single mothers find themselves in. I think a powerful message we could send is in a Socialist society, not only would the overworking and underpayment of women be addressed, it would be downright unacceptable.
MS: The Socialist Party USA strives to establish a non-racist, classless, feminist socialist society. Briefly tell us what that means to you.
Marisa: Our differences must be celebrated, not ignored — assimilation is not liberation. We must strive to work together, and to acknowledge the beliefs of all people involved — especially those that we don’t understand. And we must work, in our own lives, to fight oppression in every way possible.
Kay T: For me this means we engage in political, economic, and cultural/educational struggle to assure that physical difference is not seen as negative. It means struggling for a society where patriarchy no longer exists, which means heterosexuality is no longer privileged. Lastly, a classless society means a truly a revolutionary democratic society in which no individual, group of individuals, or institutions (government, etc.) can exploit another. It means the end of the capitalist divisions of labor between the worker and the one who profits, the teacher and student, and the citizen and the one who makes policy.
Hana: It means a gradual movement that tries to eliminate the current patriarchal structure in which men dominate and benefit. It means a society that tries to remove Anglo-male supremacy from controlling every aspect of our lives, from the political, personal, and economic spheres.
Travis: It means that we would finally live up to the promise of freedom and equality that this nation was founded upon. It’s certainly taking us long enough, but I’m in it for the long haul.
MS: In your mind’s eye, how does the transition to socialism in the U.S. pan out?
Marisa: This is a tough question. But to keep it simple, we cannot work within the present system. We must decentralize and start over. We must accept sacrifice in order to stop the insanity and cruelty of capitalism. And most importantly, we have to start giving a damn about one another. Liberation is impossible without compassion.
Kay T: To me, there is only one real approach to socialism and that is the revolutionary approach. What I mean by revolutionary approach is not the same as those who equate revolution with taking to the streets. What I just mentioned is a tactic. But the revolutionary approach is a strategy. The revolutionary strategy and perspective is the same as Marxist socialism. But let me be clear about this. I am in no way saying a person has to consider his or her self a Marxist or even agree with all of Marxism. In fact, Marxists generally don’t agree with each other. But what we do agree on is that revolution means transformation of the actual relations of production — the relations of being, acting, thinking and organizing. In a capitalist society, relationships are all organized vertically, so that the level above exploits the one below and so on, creating a multiplex of oppression and exploitation. Some reformist Socialists believe we can just improve economic distribution and have more democratic and cooperative workplaces. But this is not enough. The Marxist/revolutionary vision demands that democratic social relations exist in schools and community governance as well. In addition, the goal of governance, work, education, etc. is to promote human health/sustainability, freedom, and joy. Furthermore, this revolutionary perspective considers democracy to be a state of social being, not a specialized ritual.
This transition starts from the bottom. It starts with people educating each other to reveal the roots of oppression and possible alternatives. It requires people to practice standing up for their rights and demanding the recognition of more fundamental humanistic rights through building social movements. It also requires prefigurative work in which people build the types of society on small scales within this one right now. But they have to do all of this, because prefigurative formations will succumb to capitalist domination if we do not actively and aggressively pursue the end of capitalist social relations. A community garden is wonderful until a large developer comes in and takes the land to build condominiums for the rich. In short, we have to build power and displace capitalism. There is no other way.
Hana: I think with an increased emphasis on improving societal structure, there would be a greater presence and support for the Socialist Party USA and socialism in general. With campaigns like the “Wipe Out Student Debt” letter writing campaign, we will slowly draw in more and more people with demands for socialized programs.
Travis: I think it will be a long, imperfect, and occasionally literal fight, but I think it will primarily be achieved through the growth of alternatives to the current corporate business model, through working people being sick of a system that is intended to drive them into debt, through people seeking education about the world around them outside of the corporate controlled classrooms and media sources, and through the demanding of equal rights in pay, marriage, and legal protection for all. I think that as more and more people begin to look around them and think “Something about this isn’t right, we could do better,” the Leftist movement in general and the socialist movement in particular will grow — particularly if the Democratic party continues to do an ever poorer job of pretending to be the party of the working class. No worries about that aspect, personally.
MIMI is the Male Vice-Chair of the Socialist Party USA and am the State Chair of the Party in California. He loves his family, his cats, his comrades, and loud music. He also likes to laugh. A lot. He has quite a few tattoos, and refuses to hide who he is and where he stands.