It is a common misconception that back pain is a byproduct of age. I began considering this as I lay down for sleep last Sunday night and the often crippling pain in my lower back was somehow less debilitating. After spending the weekend at the Socialist Party’s National Organizing Conference, three days spent in constant motion of mind and body, it would have seemed that the opposite would have been true, but then it occurred to me – it’s not the process of aging which causes the back to twist and sting, it’s the result of the world’s weight bearing down heavier upon the shoulders of the sufferer. A man of old age who has never suffered the mental anguish and physical fatigue that relentlessly pursues the daily toiler, likely never knows the same muscle pain as the proletarian struggler, particularly if that toiler picks up the banner of revolutionary struggle.
But even after that strenuous weekend which had taken so much out of me, it was abundantly clear why the ache that should have been unbearable had somehow subsided – a weekend spent in the company of comrades, even an hour or two, particularly those from locales across the country, eases the mind of the revolutionary struggler for he realizes, more clearly than ever, that the burden he carries upon his shoulders is not carried alone – it is carried daily, in cities and towns across the nation, by comrades in this revolutionary battle which, even in victory, will know no end, and their camaraderie relieves that weight and those comrades help carry that burden.
This, if nothing more, should have been the lesson learned from all of those comrades who suffered the humid air and tropical rains of the Deep South to attend this year’s conference. As revolutionary actors, we become so bogged down in the daily burdens of the local struggle that our vision becomes dim to the wider struggle – we become paralyzed by the myriad failures and disappointments, the uphill battles which seem never to have a precipice – and our resolve lessens, our commitment fades, our inspiration dissolves slowly and continually, and we tear ourselves apart from the inside, whether independently or as a cadre.
But then, as if a savior sent from some Greek anthem to pull a crew of drowning sailors from the wreckage of their vessel amid a tormented sea, comrades appear. And upon their faces, the same scars are evident – the bloodshot eyes from hours spent in battle, the heavy brows from weeks of inner and outer torment, the hardened and calloused hands from years of gripping tight to an ideal that seems continually to slip further and further away. But those faces and hands, which so resemble my own, provide a sense of empowerment that simply cannot be achieved on the streets of one’s own home town, for hometown streets are stained by battles lost and a constant reminder of those still to be fought. They bring with them stories of their own failures and their own desperation and, simultaneously, their unshakable resolve and the idea that this struggle in which we have enlisted ourselves is one worth pursuing and the only one capable of liberating the sufferers of this nation and every other beneath the capitalist sun. And the burden lifts, for one is reminded that another carries a portion of that weight, and the back begins to straighten and heal and the body is again able to do the work it’s meant to do.
From all over the country these weary defenders of justice and equality descended upon my hometown – from Florida to California, from Tennessee to New York and New Jersey, from Nebraska, Minnesota, Mississippi, and a number of other locales where the revolutionary fire still burns bright. Navigating Montgomery is much different from navigating the urban hubs of New York or other major cities – there is no mass transit to get from any major airport to the downtown city center and there is no major airport within the city – and yet they came, some in cars they had driven for hours on end, some who had traveled by plane, bus, train, or some combination of all three, and they brightened the streets of my hometown with their very first breath. We met in an old church, which now serves as a community center, and shared a Southern potluck dinner, complete with the vegan options required for a crowd of varying dietary needs – potato salad, barbecued pork and barbecued jackfruit, black-eyed pea dip, hot wing dip, baked beans, salad, and an assortment of other delicacies.
After we’d filled our guts properly, and discussed those things which socialists discuss over dinner – our struggles at home, those relevant to the revolution and those not so relevant, our ideals on Marxism and so forth – we all walked over to a nearby biergarten to listen to local folk music. It was a beautiful scene! The porch of the place, much like any oversized Southern porch, looked down on our state capital – comrades were everywhere, engrossed in discussions on theory and modern action and the ideas which would most certainly be shared at the following day’s conference. Those conversations, and ones that would follow throughout the weekend, held over a bit of food or a beer or a cigarette, were the highlight of the weekend for me – in learning about one’s comrades, knowing them more than as a faceless name on a computer screen, brings our revolution to life and, simultaneously gives it life. It is through these personal interactions, even more valuable because of their rarity and purity, that the bonds of camaraderie are built and sustained.
We met early the next morning at the old church that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald once attended, some bumbling in late and chugging down the coffee I’d bought at the gas station, and, in true socialist fashion, started late with our opening remarks and the day’s first workshop – a séance of radicalism and activism held by comrades from the locals of Los Angeles and Inland Empire. These comrades, through their work with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, brought to life the real threat we each face as revolutionaries – the threat of harassment, imprisonment and even death – and the true potential that each of us holds if we but apply ourselves diligently and forcefully to the movement and all that it demands from us.
A local activist, who runs a community garden here in Montgomery, followed them with a workshop on urban and rural agriculture and the barriers, often based on race or gender or income level or a combination of the three, that have been constructed between the lower classes and access to nutritious food. This is an enormous problem in the South, which seems peculiar as much of our economy is still based on agriculture – it was my hope that in bringing some of the Southern voices, who have become allies in the local struggle, before my comrades from locales so distant from mine, that the struggle of the South, parts of which have been deemed similar to third-world countries, would become more apparent. The South is a part of the country that, even in leftist circles, is often demeaned or misunderstood, both its history and its modern conditions – a talk by a local ally on this very issue, later in the day, proved to be one of the highlights of the conference.
One of the more enlightening workshops of the weekend followed, when the Socialist Party’s National Secretary presented a workshop on building coalitions within our communities. Comrades were broken into groups – we were tasked with building a coalition around anti-gentrification in “Townsville, USA,” an imaginary place that could very well be any place in the country. Each group was supplied a list of organizations operating in Townsville, and tasked with deciding which organizations they would work with, which organizations they absolutely would not work with, and which organizations they could possibly work with in the future or on an issue-by-issue basis. It was interesting working with comrades and breaking the list of organizations down, finding the faults in their platforms and operating procedures, always mindful that our coalition was supposed to be built around stifling gentrification and nothing more, and deciding what organizations would bolster that mission and which were inherently opposed to it. For the most part, all of the groups landed on the same organizations in each category. But the lesson, for me at least, was that the expectation of political purity is something that has to be abandoned when we are working within our communities on specific issues.
As socialists, we expect nothing less than a revolutionary zeal that compromises nothing in the pursuit of our ultimate goal, but we must be willing to work with organizations that don’t always live up to that revolutionary expectation when we are working to improve our communities through coalitions aimed at solving specific problems. Allies are different from comrades – they have not yet signed onto the revolutionary rosters or properly digested our radical political diet, but they are inspired people with a desire to work within our communities and improve them. Our job, as socialists and revolutionary visionaries, is to unite our cadres with these organizations and, with any luck, through our efforts they can be recruited to the revolutionary cause while supplementing our community actions.
The centerpiece of Saturday’s activities was a panel discussion from some of Montgomery’s leading activists, specifically clinic workers, escorts and activists for reproductive rights. Beside the clinic in our city is a place called POWER House, a safe space for women who come to the clinic seeking abortions or consultations – a space where their families can wait in silence and safety, a place where they can spend the night, a place where escorts gather to walk with these women to the doors of the clinic and shield them from the right-wing extremists who gather outside of its gates on clinic days. Our local has worked closely with the activists at POWER House since we formed in late 2016 – we’ve held meetings at their building, have worked as escorts on clinic days, have tabled at countless events together and generally worked as allies to one another in nearly any effort either has been involved with.
The people who spoke on the panel included a veteran and outspoken activist, who has been arrested for his work at the clinic by one of the protesting right-wingers who accused him of assault for protecting a woman trying to enter the clinic. Another has worked in the clinic for nearly 40 years and is the owner of the city’s only facility offering abortion services to women in need, some who have to travel as much as five hours to get the help they need. The other two, both strong-willed and brilliant women, own and operate the POWER House and work tirelessly to further the goals of women’s rights. All have suffered slander, harassment and even death threats for their work, which is of such value to so many women across the South. They were, in my opinion, a valuable piece of exposing the contemporary Southern condition to our comrades from elsewhere in the country. Abortion services are sparse throughout the South, and the women who seek them out are often brutally tormented by religious, right-wing extremists. While this problem may not be unique to any region, it is sorely punctuated and pronounced in the South, and our local wanted to put on full display, from the mouths of people who work daily to provide and protect the women in need of these services, exactly what it is like in our hometown and so many cities that surround it.
Half way through the panel, father duties called me away – I hadn’t been with my children since the dinner the night before, during which both of my children, particularly my daughter, relished in the company of their comrades, and my bones were beginning to ache for them – so I missed the panel’s finale and the workshops that followed. One of those workshops, presented by another local activist and staunch feminist, was the highlight of the weekend for some comrades – she spoke on Southern stereotypes and how their use has diminished the work of activists and organizers across the South, most often to the detriment of Southern people who are misunderstood throughout the rest of the country. Another was hosted by members of the Socialist Party’s Editorial Board on how the party press can be a dynamic platform for ideological education and a necessary stepping stone to the type of mass socialist movement we are looking to create. That I was not in attendance for these workshops was certainly a disappointment. The first was given by a local woman, whom I reached out to, and spoke to the Southern-centric difficulties of our time. The second was presented by comrades whose work as writers, journalists and revolutionaries is near to my heart and does much to further the ideological strengthening of our organization. But a dinner with my children, and the opportunity to hold them and to speak to them before returning to my work, was a break that I had to take. This is simultaneously the benefit and detriment of hosting an event in one’s hometown – when I was in New York for the convention, there was no escape from the action on the convention floor until the day was done and I returned to my hotel and, eventually, my home; at the conference, home was just around the corner and the silent call of my children was one easily given in to and too much to ignore.
That evening, we hosted a concert featuring some of our city’s most prominent musical acts, and all of the money raised at the door was given to the Party. That these musicians all played for free, with their only attachment to the party being myself and our local chairman, is inspiring and went a long way in providing our comrades the opportunity to meet the people we are surrounded with daily. More than the hope that our comrades would learn from the local populace was the hope that the local populace would learn from our comrades. So many of the people in our city are lulled into apathy, if not wholly hostile to radicalization due to their belief that the bourgeois left represents the pinnacle of resistance to the rising tide of fascism. This is the battle that local organizations face in their hometowns – they’re labeled as radicals or idealists and are unable to get their message across to new people because their voices are too familiar yet speaking a different language. The introduction of new faces, new words from new voices, will hopefully prove a benefit to our local struggle – indeed, it already has, as I have been contacted by people who have never expressed an interest in our organization before meeting the comrades who attended this year’s conference. The concert went late into the night and, by its end, I was weary and hungry – a crew of us loaded up and made a late night Waffle House run, after which I went home and fell asleep around 2:30am.
I arose the next morning at 8am and began rushing about to get out of the house and down to the conference – a quick shower, a stop at the store for sodas, ice and cigarettes, and I was at the conference shortly after 9am. Again, socialist time runs different from that of the larger world, and the conference that was meant to start promptly at 9am was delayed – when I pulled up, comrades were lingering outside, smoking cigarettes and talking about the night before and the day ahead. We eventually got started with a workshop, presented by our National Treasurer and Co-Chair, about the inner structure of the Socialist Party – how officers are elected and appointed, how decisions are made and actions taken, and so forth. It was an educational workshop for many in the crowd – being familiar with the inner workings of the Party, I still learned points that I was unclear on and recognized the look of illumination across many faces in the crowd. It was an excellent way to start the morning – nothing too heavy, but just enough to get the blood and brain working again.
This workshop was followed by another which I felt was truly educating – our former Presidential candidate discussed how to build a SWOT analysis in regard to constructing an effective local campaign. To understand this in short form, SWOT is an abbreviation for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats” and is meant to be a comprehensive method by which a local organization can construct a local campaign and analyze how that campaign might come to life. Our local provided much of the fuel for this workshop and, as is required with such a process, it brought to life many of the failures of our organization – many that I have been incapable of seeing for standing too close to the light. That bad blood can boil between comrades within a local should be nothing new to those who are part of a local cadre – this can happen because of ideological differences or different ideas on how the local should operate but, most often, it is the result of squabbles which have nothing at all to do with the work of the local – but that bad blood, or whatever term may be more fit for its existence, should not stand in the way of us critically analyzing our local organizations and finding ways that we can get past those stumbling blocks which are keeping us from furthering our goals effectively.
After this workshop was one convened by members of the Socialist Party’s Women’s Commission on sexism – recognizing its various manifestations, countering it effectively and coping with its effects – which was educational on many levels. As a man, particularly a white cis-hetero man in the South, it is necessary that I, and those like me, recognize the effects that the patriarchy has had on women throughout the country and, to a lesser degree, the effect it has had on men in making them hostile and emotionless creatures, and fight it effectively while not fighting it to the extreme that it makes me a pawn to its whims. As a father of a little girl, I realize this issue to be one that effects women more than any other in our society, but recognizing the eccentricities of the problem is likely something I will be learning for some time – stepping in for a woman when she has a problem may not always be the appropriate response as, in doing so, I may be undermining her ability to handle that situation independent of a man’s intervention. Speaking up for a woman when she is suffering the insults of a man might not always be the appropriate response as, in doing so, I may be undermining her ability to speak for herself.
As a man growing up in the South, lessons of chivalry and gentlemanly behavior are not uncommon, but it seems abundantly apparent to me that there is a fine line between chivalry and toxic masculinity, between being a gentleman and perpetuating the patriarchy. This workshop has made me reevaluate the ways I interact with the women in my life, and those I meet in passing each day, as well as the ways in which I evaluate my own behavior – I would find myself in tears later that day, silently berating myself for my weakness, and for the first time in my life realize that such behavior is indeed counter to a feminist perspective and a byproduct of toxic masculinity.
This workshop was followed up with one on the struggles that the LGBTQ community endures in the South – its presenter is a local comrade and President of Montgomery PRIDE United, another organization that our local has had a close connection with since its inception. Much like POWER House, PRIDE has worked with us on multiple occasions and, more often than not, where one organization is involved the other is present. This was another workshop that I felt, like the Southern-centric workshops that had preceded it, would go a long way in illuminating the Southern condition to some of our comrades from across the country – that LGBTQ folks face incredible discrimination is inarguable and, like many other issues, not unique to the South, but a region submerged in religious tradition and conservative dogma is much more hostile to this community, as well as many other marginalized groups.
Even being surrounded by this environment daily, I found the statistics in this workshop to be staggering and, throughout the room, I could see that this revelation was not unique to me. Especially enlightening was how this community is ravaged by poverty and the lack of access to healthcare, particularly for people of color within the Southern LGBTQ community. Like feminist actions, LGBTQ action is where I believe many of our local’s upcoming efforts will be directed – women and the LGBTQ community suffer a relentless persecution in the South and it is something that Southern comrades should be fighting daily, not only through organized party action but through daily interaction and a concentrated effort to learn more, listen more and do more.
At the close of this workshop, the conference was dismissed for a brief lunch break that would be followed by the final workshop of the weekend – mine. I had sweated over the workshop I was slated to present for the past week and, between the various issues which called my attention away, I had taken on more than I could handle and never completed my workshop – I had a paper that was more than thirty pages and not a third complete, but I had developed a fairly keen knowledge of my topic, which was the work of the Alabama Communist Party during the 1930’s and its collaboration with the Sharecroppers’ Union (SCU) and other Party-led unions, the International Labor Defense (ILD) and the party’s publication, Southern Worker. I took the brief time between the meeting space and the downtown center, where a large portion of the conference participants were meeting for pizza, to call my wife – her mother’s home, where we have been living since being kicked out of our house at the beginning of June, had just been sold. I’m generally not one for emotional outbursts, but the tiny memories of that house began rushing back to me as I walked from the car to the pizza joint – how, for 15 years, I’ve come to that house, first as a young man climbing in through my future wife’s bedroom window and now as a father taking his children to visit their grandmother; how many afternoons I’d spent with friends and family in this yard, how we’d had our baby showers and kids’ birthday parties there; how, in the concrete of the driveway, my wife had carved “I love ACP” so many years before. That house, which my wife grew up in, will soon be someone else’s home, and no longer a place that my children can visit and, just like the home we lost only months before, they will again have to know the ache of being robbed of a place they’ve called home – they’ll harden to the sting of such difficulties, just as all of us do who are accustomed to the tragedies and trials of working class life, and they’ll lose that which makes them innocent and ignorant children and, no matter what I do, they will grow and know more pain, more tragedy, and more difficulty.
All of this flooded my mind as I went into the restaurant, surrounded by comrades from all across the country, and I had to walk outside and gather myself. Just as quickly as the memories and thoughts had flushed me, so too did the tears begin rushing to my eyes and pouring out in thick, watery streams. As I mentioned before, I began silently criticizing myself for allowing such trivial matters to interfere with my political conference – a house is little more than a structure, the family ties built within it are what make a home, and they transcend any combination of brick and wood and can be reconstructed wherever there is a willingness from those inside. The memories I’ve made in that house, memories that have constructed the very fabric of my life and indeed changed the direction my life has taken, will remain long after the house is gone and will continue to be a part of the familial memories that my family and I share with one another – and it occurred to me that, even the masculine habit of demeaning one’s own emotional outbursts, which are necessary to maintain an even mind in times of desperation and sorrow, is an internal mechanism of toxic masculinity, trained into one’s being over a lifetime of paternal education and must be overcome if one is to truly grow as a person.
The tears dried up after a while and I made my way inside and joined those comrades who would soon be making their ways out of my town and back toward the battlefields of their own cities and towns – we enjoyed a fine communist lunch, complete with a variety of pizzas not ordered specifically by any person and passed around the table without thought or regard, and fell back into those conversations that had become so familiar over a weekend of fellowship with comrades. The quick hearty meal crossed a fine line though and, along with the nourishment required to carry forward, we were all struck with the fatigue that overcomes an active mind and body which has hardly slowed down for a vibrant weekend. We slunk back toward the conference space for the final workshop as gray clouds began to gather overheard – rain was in the forecast and it was nearly upon us, that the storm would start inside would be the only surprise.
We were running on socialist time, so the conference was behind schedule and I was trying to rush getting started with my workshop, on the lessons to be taken from the epic rise of the Communist Party in Alabama and its steady decline once it adopted the “Popular Front” in the late 1930’s. In my mind, the workshop was to be broken down into three sections – the first being the description of the Party’s work in Alabama through unions, the International Labor Defense, the Party press and the youth league and women’s auxiliaries; the second section was to be on the difficulties faced by the Party in its Southern efforts, including anti-labor and anti-communist violence, racism and sexism within the labor movement and the Party, and other such topics; the third was to discuss ways that the modern movement could learn from the failures and successes of this earlier movement and build a stronger Southern front. It became quickly and abundantly clear, both because of the late hour and my long-windedness that a breakdown of this nature was going to be impossible, so I launched into the Alabama Party’s rise and figured I’d throw everything else in as I went along. The Alabama Communist Party exploded, fueled largely by black sharecroppers, tenant farmers, miners and mill workers, and had thousands of members when the adoption of the “Popular Front” crippled the movement – the “Popular Front,” formulated by the Comintern, demanded that Communist Parties worldwide begin appealing to white liberals and the black middle class in order to legitimize the Party and put it more in line with established political parties. Doing so, at least in Alabama’s case, led to a mass exodus of poor black and white people who felt that the Party’s new line was an abandonment of its early working-class radicalism. In short, by working to appeal to the enemy of the working class, the Party disenfranchised the very people it claimed to serve – this was as far as my workshop would get. I made the claim that the first lesson to be learned from the Alabama Communist Party was that trying to collaborate with and appeal to the enemy of those we claim to serve is a rejection of those same people and an abandonment of the radical ideals which attracted them to our ranks to begin with. In modern terms, this means that our policy of denouncing the Democratic Party, while not winning us any popularity contests, is right and just – the Democratic Party is the left arm of capital and serves no needs above those of the ruling class; those who use the word “socialist” in their Democratic Party campaigns are cowards, as are the organizations who support them, and should not be endorsed, nor their methods replicated, within a truly radical organization. On the road to revolution, there is no shortcut – we must stay the course, never compromise our ideals for momentary victories within the confines of popular opinion and never let the opportunism of these social democrats sway us.
I thought this statement to be on firm-footing in a room full of comrades from the Socialist Party. However, the modern ideal of “democratic socialism” as defined by more moderate socialist organizations, popularized by Democratic Party candidates who fancy themselves “socialists,” has ensnared more than one comrade among us. In my opinion, what I was attempting to get across was simply that, historically speaking, leftist movements have constructed their own demise when attempting to appeal to those who keep the working class in chains – those who would vote for Democratic Party candidates, no matter what they call themselves, are serving the whims of the elite and actively endorsing the actions of a political machine that, just like its supposed enemy, the Republican Party, has always stood on the side of the bosses rather than the workers. As is often the case with the things I say and do within the Socialist Party (see my recent piece, “Entryism and the Politics of Cowardice”), I was mistaken – arguments broke out among comrades who either vehemently agreed or disagreed with what I was saying, while outside the thunder began to crack and the skies began to darken. Comrades went back and forth over the methods of other organizations, who see the Democratic Party as some vehicle by which reform becomes revolution and reformists become radicals, and their recent “victories” within the political establishment. As I’ve written on this topic before, in earlier sentences and articles, my perspective is not unclear – entryism cannot work within the framework of the Democratic Party, specifically because it will never yield its support to the perpetuation of capitalism and imperialism. Recruiting radical elements from within these other socialist organizations, elements who have grown weary of playing through the Democratic Party establishment, is not entryism, it is simple radicalism through education and recruitment. If we succumb to the growing popularity of this watered-down version of socialist revolution by diluting our message and playing to the whims of the foolish, we do so at our own peril. The arguments continued, my workshop stalled, and eventually the conference was called on account of storm – within and without.
We all departed, as the rain beat down upon our heads, and said goodbye quickly as we all made our way to our vehicles. The rain hardly permitted the type of goodbye befitting of comrades such as these – surely, a goodbye of that caliber would have lasted long into the evening and required more of those conversations which feed the soul of the weary revolutionary, but the road was calling us all back home, even amid the Summer downpour and the misery of pending separation. I waved goodbye as I tucked myself into my car and made my way down the street, where my wife and children were waiting, alongside my brother and mother, for a much-needed meal and a while to relax before bathing my kids and getting them into bed.
Even more than a week separated from the conference, I can still hear the voices and see the faces of those comrades I came to know so well over an empowering and uplifting weekend – even the verbal battles which signaled the end of the conference informed such feelings, as they too are conversations that need to be had and all a part of the ongoing revolutionary conversation we all have daily with one another and the strangers we pass on the streets. I long for the next time we can all be together, basking in fellowship with comrades and, until then, I will strive to take the many lessons I’ve learned and put them into action here in my own area. And I’ll do so with the knowledge that the weight I’ll carry to those streets, a weight that seems to bear down harder upon my weary shoulders each day, is shared by comrades across the nation – I find wisdom in their words, inspiration in their work, empowerment in their ideas and, most of all, camaraderie in the knowledge that they are out there every day fighting for the revolution we all know is necessary to free the people we love from the chains of oppression, exploitation, injustice, and the clutching fists of the tyrants who work for their continued enslavement.
“The finest lesson I’ve learned with age is that all I need is a small team of comrades who inspire me, try not to judge me, and remind me when I’m judging myself.” – Lake Bell
Adam Powell is a lifelong resident of Montgomery, Alabama, joined SPUSA in November of 2016 and was a founding member of the party’s first chapter in the state, the Socialist Party of Central Alabama (SPCA). In addition, he is the co-Executive Editor of The Socialist as well as the National Vice Chair for SPUSA. Powell graduated from Troy University with a degree in Print Journalism and Creative Writing in 2005 and since then has worked for newspapers and online news sources all across the state and nation. He also teaches classical guitar and music theory and performs throughout the Southeast. He is married to Sara Powell and they have two children, Fionola and Kieran.